It’s the halfway point of the Penguins season and right now the Penguins are in the midst of one of their biggest downturns in recent history. They say you can learn from the past so we’ve put together a group of long time Penguins fans, one of whom who wrote a couple books on the Pens, to review how the Penguins season has shaped up so far and what you have to look forward to.
We are going to kick it off with Horse who’s been a Penguins season ticket holder for 38 years.
Horse: The first half of the 2011-2012 season has been a nightmare for the Pens. Amazingly enough, the worst day was 11-21-11 – the day Sid came back. The team was holding their own in anticipation of his return. Then eight short games later, he was gone again. This time, the air went out of the balloon and has not returned.
The loss of Letang was devastating. He is irreplaceable. 25 minutes a game. Powerplay. Penalty kill. Puck mover. Physical. Intense desire to win. There is no one else like him on the roster – maybe not in the League.
Now Staal is gone for a month or so and it seems that the Pens’ drive to win has disappeared. Even with the adversity there should still be enough talent on this team to avoid long losing streaks — especially at home.
I know the burden is great, but it is not who is OUT of the lineup, but who is IN it. The boat that the Penguins are left on has many passengers. They are not all rowing. To win now, the plan has to be low-scoring games. Fleury has to be the best player on the ice. He has been OK — but most nights the opponents’ goalie has been better. Contributions have to come from other places. Malkin has to lead. Kennedy has to score. Cooke has to hit people — just not in the head. Martin and Michalek have to be a shut-down pair. If these things happen, the Pens can stay in the hunt for a playoff spot. Then when Crosby, Letang and Staal come back, they stay back, and we find out how good this team really is.
Disco Stu: It’s been a tale of two halves for the Penguins first half of the 2011/12 season. The Penguins came flying out of the gate with a 12-6-3 record for the first quarter of the season but stumbled to the first half wire with a 9-10-1 record including five consecutive losses. A good bit of their slide can be attributed to the roller coaster ride they’ve been on with injuries, mostly of the “Concussion-like symptoms” ilk(I’m sorry, but I hate that term – You either have a concussion or you don’t. Nothing else produces concussion-like symptoms). We had Sid missing the first 20 games of the season only to have him show up in Marioesque fashion for Game 21, play for eight games and then disappear like a thief in the night for the remainder of the first half with no imminent return in sight. It’s not even a question of the number of man games lost to injury, but the quality of players who have missed those games. No other team in the NHL could survive losing the number of games the Penguins have from players the caliber of Crosby(33), Letang(19), and Staal(7) not to mention extended absences from Malkin (7), Michaelek(20), Martin(7), Lovejoy(20), and Kennedy(11). It’s a tribute to not only the players and the coaching staff but the management as well that the Penguins still hold down the eight and final playoff spot. I credit management for providing the depth that the team has had to call on to replace its stars.
The second half of the season officially kicked off in Washington with a game against the Capitals, a team only two points behind the Penguins in the standings. If the Penguins can not recover from this injury bug any time soon, I fear this may be the first year in a while that we do not qualify for the playoffs. Staal is still gone for a minimum of a month, There hasn’t been a progress report on Sid in weeks, and it looks like Letang is just starting to skate on his own. Without these three, I just can’t see the team being able to put together too many win streaks over the next three months. Yes, some of these players can eventually go on Long Term Injured Reserve removing their salaries from the cap and allowing the Penguins to go after some replacements, but at what cost? Would you be willing to sacrifice the long term depth the Penguins have amassed at the Defense position for a possible short term fix? In a perfect world, Sid, Stall and Letang are back long enough before the trade deadline that they give management a reason to improve the team for the playoff run. If not, the off season is going to be longer this year than any since 2005/06
Rick Buker: One can probably sum up the first half of the Penguins’ 2011-12 season in a single word—INJURIES. Indeed, the virtual plague of ailments makes it difficult to accurately assess the team’s overall performance. During the all-too-brief stretch when Sidney Crosby returned and the lineup was reasonably intact, the Pens looked like legit Cup contenders. At other times—especially during the club’s current six-game (and counting) losing streak—the black and gold more closely resembled an aging team in transition.
Unfortunately, the Pens’ recent woes served to overshadow some fine individual efforts. After two difficult seasons, Evgeni Malkin looks like the Geno of old (17 goals in 34 games). James Neal (21 goals) emerged as one of the league’s top power forwards. Jordan Staal fought through injuries to flash the scoring touch he displayed as a rookie. Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, Brooks Orpik, and Marc-Andre Fleury were solid night in and night out. Crafty newcomer Steve Sullivan added some much-needed creativity to a stagnant power play. And Deryk Engelland and Matt Niskanen have proven themselves to be reliable NHL defensemen.
There were disappointments, too. Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek failed to live up to their billing as a shutdown defensive tandem. The Pens need more from hustling Tyler Kennedy (5 goals). The kinder, gentler Matt Cooke has been a pale imitation of his former self. Popular backup goalie Brent Johnson struggled mightily (.876 save percentage). While injuries and a lack of ice time played a part, Richard Park and Steve MacIntyre were non-factors.
GM Ray Shero deserves a raspberry as well. Perhaps in anticipation of a league crackdown on physical play, he defanged the Pens over the off-season by allowing tough guys Eric Godard and Mike Rupp (not to mention scrappy Max Talbot) to walk. As a result, opposing teams took more liberties with Penguins stars than at any time in recent memory. Of equal concern is a perceived lack of character, causing Orpik to call his teammates out.
Still, all isn’t gloom and doom. The myriad of injuries provided youngsters such as Robert Bortuzzo and Simon Despres a chance to get their feet wet at the NHL level. Despres, in particular, was impressive.
Ginger: Writing your first official penguinpoop piece (say that 6x fast) the morning after the Pens matched their longest losing streak since January 3, 2010 is not the cure to snap out of the Pittsburgh sports depression. It is scary to think we are on a slide and that we have may already have seen the best days of hockey this season.
The season was hopeful at the start. FINALLY, weeks before training camp, Sidney Crosby spoke publicly, albeit with a team of doctors and concussion expert Dr. Michael Collins calling him a Ferrari! We had optimism! Other questions would soon be answered. Matt Cooke could play outside of the penalty box with success and Geno was in the best shape in quite some time! Even without Crosby, the hockey world experts had the Pens on the short list of playoff contenders. A little over a month into the season, with Crosby only on the practice lineup in a different colored jersey, the Pens were in contention. They were five games above 500 and just a couple of points behind the Rangers and Flyers. I’d take it as there was HOPE!! Then, just as his landlord had done, the Penguins’ captain officially returned. Canada and the hockey world (well, maybe not in Phil or Detroit) rejoiced. After 320 days, the Ferrari returned to the ice in not so subtle fashion with two goals, two assists and a smile and a bleeping exclamation. All was good.
Little did we know that UPMC’s sponsorship of the Penguins would be even more ironic, as days later on Sid’s first road trip to Canada, Kris Letang stole the show by going out of the game with a broken nose (received after a nasty reviewable hit) and returning to score on the bloodied ice in OT. Apparently, not only was the hit sent for review, but so were Letang’s medical tests, for it was not just a broken nose, but a concussion.
Just when we were starting to breathe when Sidney got bumped or slid into the boards and everything seemed back to normal, Sidney was a last minute cancellation on a trip to Philadelphia. Mmmm, we were told that this was not another concussion, but headaches and being what he has described as being “a little off”. That was the second week of December.
The mighty have fallen. Big time. Is it a crisis? Probably the closest thing we’ve seen in quite some time. The Pens man-games lost totals 210 and is rising! The Pens slogan “Great Day for Hockey” isn’t so accurate at the present.
Other first half themes: Wilkes-Barre express. Jagr still public enemy, Paul Martin will be booed even if plus-minus better, James Neal different than last year, even without Sid. Outside Pens: Concussions all over the league, Brendan Shanahan videographer a busy person.
Phil Krundle: The Penguins have been completely decimated by injuries the first half of the season and that’s not what has worried me. The Penguins played through a lineup that was in worse shape at the end of last season. What worries me is how the team is going to handle adversity. The team has faced the problems of injured teamates, but how a team responds to losing is the real test.
Right now at the half way point the Penguins are facing not having a playoff spot for the first time in a good while and how the team keeps it’s composure will surely play a big part with how the team does the second half and with how Shero makes moves at the coming up trade deadline.
The first half of the season, the Penguins have had many shortcomings 3 big ones that come to mind and they all seem to be coming to light about now.
With the loss of Kris Letang, the team doesn’t have a play making defenseman. We picked up two highly rated high priced defensemen last season that are one dimensional, defense only.
The team only has one main scoring line right now and the other teams have figured them out. Cover the shooter not the pass. While Kunitz is having a great season and in my opinion worthy of at least assistant captain, he doesn’t work with Malkin and Neal. Taking Sullivan off that line has taking away it’s play making ability and has turned it into a shoot only line. The opposing goaltender doesn’t need to worry about passes which makes it easier to stop shots. Dan Bylsma and crew need to work passing back into the mix by putting Sullivan back on the line.
Then there is goaltending. The Penguins defense has been doing a stellar job keeping opposing shots ridiculously low. In fact the Penguins have less shots against them than any other team. All I ask is this: When is Fleury going to win a game for the team?
Reg Dunlop: The injury thing has been addressed quite thoroughly by my peers in this piece. Therefore, I am going to address another thing that I think has, in some part, added to the Penguins frustrations. I have said it numerous times in this blog that I believe a huge reason for the Pens success has been team chemistry. They have always had a great mix of talent and character in their locker room. During the offseason, the Penguins management decided not to pursue the signing of two guys in particular that I think have upset the team chemistry. Max Talbot and Mike Rupp. These guys, though not putting up big numbers, were very important to the chemistry. They contributed to the success of the Penguins in the “non-tangible” ways that we hear about.
Having great locker room guys can help a team get through the tough times. (Injuries) That is not to say that there aren’t guys who could, and should, step up and fill those leadership roles, but it doesn’t seem to be happening. Getting a couple of good character guys (58 & 87) back from IR should add a boost to their issues.
That pretty much sums up our thoughts on the first half of the season. On top off all that has been discussed one thing we can all agree on is that the Pens could surely stand to have a little luck to go their way the second half.