The Penguins did something good throughout in January when they snapped longest losing streak of head coach Dan Bylsma's tenure and started winning a bunch of games. But initially they also got into the bad habit of relying too heavily upon the heroics of Evgeni Malkin.
It's a nice problem to have, being able to rely on a dynamic player like Malkin, who is currently tied for the league lead in scoring with 84 points. But it's still a problem. Teams that are overly reliant on one player are not prone to lasting long in the NHL postseason. Eliminate the threat, and you eliminate the team.
Add in the well-documented history of injury troubles for not only the imminently-returning Sidney Crosby, but Kris Letang as well, and James Neal showing signs of entering his worryingly consistent yearly second-half goal-scoring slump (one goal in his last 10 games) and you could've found a Penguins team in serious trouble as the season neared its climax.
But a funny thing started happening. Role players started doing more than just playing their roles.
In January, the Penguins scored 36 goals in 12 games, for an even three goals per game. It was a tidy sum for any team, but even tidier considering that the Pens scored only three goals in their first four games of the month. Still, the primary producer was Malkin, who scored 12 goals and 16 points in January.
In February, the Pens increased their total to 45 goals in 13 games, or 3.46 per game. A slight increase, but not a massive one. The beauty is in the details.
Malkin, historically maligned for his inconsistency, has been a consistent scorer in 2011-12, putting up point totals of 16, 20, 16 and 20 in the four full months of the season (Nov., Dec., Jan., Feb.).
Notably, the following Penguins saw dramatic increases in production in February:
- Chris Kunitz: Moving up from one goal and six points in January to four goals and 12 points in February and a pair of goals in his first five games in March.
- Pascal Dupuis: Up from three points, none of them goals, in January, to four goals and nine points in February. In March, he already has five points in five games.
- Steve Sullivan: Doubling his point total from five in January to 10 in February, his best month of the season. He's got four points in five games in March.
- Jordan Staal: Recovering from an injury-plagued, indifferent December and cameo appearance in January, where he combined for three goals and no assists in 11 games, Staal scored 11 points in nine games in February. That's a big deal. Six points in five games in March.
- Matt Cooke: Up from four points to 10 in February, his best month of the season as well.
It can't be overstated how important these increased contributions from secondary players (to be fair, that's a term that doesn't accurately describe Staal anymore) are in playoff games. That's when top lines are focused on, and occasionally shut down. When games matter.
That's also when its time for the other lines to step up.
The Penguins are getting that right now. As long as they continue to, they'll be a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference.
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