Heading into this season, there were plenty of question marks surrounding the Pittsburgh Penguins.
How could they contend for the Stanley Cup again after the turnover during the summer?
What would be the effect from starting the season in Sweden?
Was Marc-Andre Fleury's playoff run just a fluke?
Despite the turnover -- and still being without their top two defensemen, suffering through another Fleury injury and with a struggling power play -- Pittsburgh still finds itself in the mix atop the Eastern Conference and housing the league's top two scorers as of today.
Winning nine out of their last 12 and getting hat-tricks this week from Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby have propelled the Penguins to one of their best starts in franchise history; and once again, they're getting quality production from their depth players.
But as players return from injury, will the team's winning combinations and chemistry remain intact?
Miroslav Satan was thought to be on his last legs when he was with the New York Islanders, but playing alongside Sidney Crosby has awoken the scoring touch that was missing the last few seasons. No longer does Satan need to worry about beating defensemen one-on-one -- he just has to worry about setting up in the slot and waiting for Crosby to dish him the puck or to pounce on a rebound in the crease.
Tyler Kennedy (15 points), Jordan Staal (12 points) and Matt Cooke (9 points) are all stepping up their individual roles even when not scoring, as Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pointed out this week:
It's unlikely the line will remain intact for the next decade or so -- with Therrien, a unit's shelf life usually is easier measured in minutes than months -- but it isn't an accident that Cooke, Staal and Kennedy have remained together for several weeks.
"Whether it's a big goal or a big hit or creating a turnover, they've done a number of good things for us," assistant coach Mike Yeo said.
"They all are aggressive on the fore-check and are willing to get pucks behind [the opponents'] defense and use the fore-check to create scoring chances and build momentum for the team. They're all content to work hard in the offensive zone, use the cycle and control the puck down low."
Once again in goal, the Penguins are finding injury relief in their backup goaltender. Dany Sabourin has stepped in for the injured Marc-Andre Fleury and given fans dreams of another Ty Conklin-esque performance. Sabourin is replacing any doubts that detractors had about him when Conklin left for Detroit and he was given the permanent back-up job to Fleury.
When the news came out that both Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney were going to be on the shelf from an extended period of time, Penguins fans began wondering if the blue line would be able to handle missing its top minute-eaters.Through 23 games, Pittsburgh is ninth in the National Hockey League with 2.65 goals-against per game, and head coach Michel Therrien has isn't shy about mixing up his top defense pair on a nightly basis in the absence of Gonchar and Whitney.
If the opponent's top line has speed, they'll expect to see Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik use their skating abilities to neutralize them. Should the top line be more about possession, Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi will be given the task. Add in veteran Philippe Boucher, acquired three weeks ago, and rookie Alex Goligoski, who leads all rookie defensemen in scoring, and Pittsburgh's depth is keeping them afloat; while also making for interesting conversations as to who will be the team's top six defensemen once Ryan Whitney returns, and then later this season when Gonchar is healthy.
Reader Joshua Adams floats the question:
"What should Therrien do? Obviously, Ryan will have a spot on the roster, but someone has to get the boot. Sydor is gone, so making the decision of who gets scratched won't be as easy. As you look down the list of defensemen, (Boucher, Gill, Goligoski, Letang, Orpik, Scuderi), one should look at three things: 1) Liability, 2) Offensive ability, and 3) Physical presence. Right now, the Pens biggest need is someone who is not afraid to get involved in the offense and pinch the blue line..."
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported this week that Ryan Whitney completed his first full week of practice and will make a return within the next month or so.
So let's hear it PensNation, who do you want to see on the blue line moved to the press box or out of the Steel City permanently once the Penguins defense is fully healthy?
- Ryan Whitney