Hockey is a sport played at a frantic pace, and every game sees players exert maximum effort in each and every shot, every stride, every hit. Tempers boil over, insults are tossed, and gloves are dropped. With all the intensity in each minute of each game, it's easy to forget that the NHL season is a marathon. The Pittsburgh Penguins have completed 15 games of their 2010-11 campaign, less than 20 percent of it. At 7-7-1, the Pens have 15 points in 15 games. That's not going to cut it over the long season, but there is plenty of time left.
-As usual, Sidney Crosby has not disappointed. His 19 points currently rank second in the NHL, and he has gotten on the score sheet in eleven out of the fifteen games. In fact, how's this for reliability: Crosby has more multi-point games (six) than games he's been held scoreless (four). Throw in dominant performances in the faceoff circle (57.5% winner) and over two minutes of action per game on the penalty kill and you've got the most well-rounded player in the NHL today.
-The Pens have a goalie who's 6-1-1 with a 1.63 goals against average and a .943 save percentage. Sure, it's "backup" goalie Brent Johnson, but those are some sterling numbers, and it's hard to imagine where this team would be right now if Johnson wasn't playing arguably the best hockey of his career.
-Mark Letestu has been a nice surprise, clawing his way onto the team and recording eight points (four goals, four assists) in the 15 games. He also scored the only shootout goal against Phoenix to help earn the Pens an extra point in the standings.
-Whether or not it's entirely his fault, Marc-Andre Fleury has given up goals in the first six minutes of games in five of his eight games. In seven of those, the opponent has scored the game's opening goal. When Fleury has been in the lineup, chances are the Pens have been digging out of a hole. And with a 1-6 record, and a terrible save percentage, Fleury is going through a really tough stretch. Perhaps getting pulled in Phoenix will be the low point of his season. If it's not, where this ends is hard to imagine.
-Here's the best thing that can be said about the power play: the Pittsburgh Penguins are good at generating them. In the past six games they've gotten the man advantage 27 times. During this stretch they've scored two goals. Total. Unsurprisingly, the Pens have lost four of the six games, and they're 1-for-20 in those four losses.
It's a comedy of errors: without Sergei Gonchar, the rushes up the neutral zone have been disorganized and derailed scoring chances before they even get a chance. Without Bill Guerin they haven't gotten half the net-front presence that worked so well. Without former assistant coach Mike Yeo, there's no one to blame!
It's flawed from the beginning, as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both play best in the same spot (on the half-wall) so one is not in prime position. There aren't enough right-handed shots, so they can't work passes for one-times. Alex Goligoski has taken on a "rover" role that has led to several odd-man rushes against which forwards suddenly have to scramble and play defense. Things obviously aren't working, as there's no execution and seemingly very little coaching plans actually making it to games.
-Superstar forward Evgeni Malkin is on pace for just 22 goals. Despite having the fourth-most shots on goal in the league with 60, Malkin just isn't hitting paydirt. With such a talented player, he will sooner or later. On a positive note, Malkin was roundly criticized last season for all the penalties he took (49 minors in 77 games). This season Geno has only been whistled for one minor penalty in 14 games, so he should be lauded for staying more within the rules and improving in this area.
-From October 2006 to the end of the 2009-10 regular season, the Pens played 377 games. Jordan Staal played in 376 of these, with the only absence coming as a healthy scratch in his rookie year. Then came the unusual injury against Montreal, when his foot got stepped on by P.K. Subban's skate blade, and the tremendously quick recovery. Staal then had to deal with several surgeries to clean out infections to his foot. Finally, in practice the day before he would make his 2010-11 season debut, an errant puck Staal back to the operating room. Staal is looking at a mid-December return, if he can avoid black cats and shattering any mirrors.
The Jordan Staal story sort of sums up the first fifteen games for the Penguins as a whole. Frustrating. Exasperating. Maddening. But still full of promise for what could be in the future as this long season drags on.