Penguins' fate rests in their hands

With 7 divisional games left in their regular season, with the most wins in the Eastern Conference (43), and with one point behind the Montreal Canadiens, with a vital game-in-hand, the Pittsburgh Penguins have the ability to control their own fate in the Eastern Conference (and Atlantic Division) standings.
By going 6-0-1, the Penguins will guarantee first place, regardless of what Montreal or NJ does. It would also give them 106 points, one more than last year’s amazing season.

With 7 goals scored in 3 of their last 4 home games, including 7 against the Devils (who previously had allowed only 5 in a game this season) with five in the third period, all without Sidney Crosby (who is due to return shortly), the Penguins are now looking like the favorites to win the East and that all-important home-ice throughout the Eastern playoffs.

Let’s break down the games left, and how the team has played of late.
Also, a few comparisons with the Habs to keep Habs fans’ interest.

I’ll break it down by player and team stats, finishing off with the games remaining for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

PLAYER STATS (For Malkin, Sykora, Malone, Hossa, and Dupuis with Gonchar on D and Fleury in net)

Evgeni Malkin is averaging 1.77 points per game (20 goals, 26 assists for 46 points in 26 games) without Crosby, but only 1.13 with Crosby in the lineup. Malkin is only the 2nd player this year to record 100 points, with Iginla, Lecavalier and Datsyuk on the trail. Evgeni has recorded 102 points to Ovechkin’s 106. The Capitals have six games remaining. The Penguins have seven. Playing without Crosby, Malkin has been the best player in the NHL statistically (based on PPG). Can he continue his torrid pace when Sid comes back? Sid thinks so, but we’ll see. If so, and if Hossa and Crosby mesh (which both assure us will be the case), the Pens are truly to be feared.

The Malone-Malkin-Sykora line has been arguably the best line in hockey since Crosby went down with injury. I dare someone to come up with a more productive line! The Sens top line hasn’t been as dominant recently as it was early in the season.

Let’s start with Petr Sykora.
He has 33 points (13 goals and 20 assists) in the same 26 games without Crosby, playing on Malkin’s line. That’s good for 1.27PPG. On the season, Alfredsson is 4th overall with a 1.27PPG. (Ovechkin, Crosby and Malkin are tops with 1.39, 1.37 and 1.36, respectively.)

Next, let’s move on to the upcoming UFA, who all signs point to will re-sign with Pittsburgh, his hometown: Ryan Malone.
He has 29 points (15 goals and 14 assists) in the same 26 games, with 0 points in 8 of those games. His 1.12PPG during that span equals Kovalchuk’s seasonal span, which puts him in 12th overall.

Ryan Malone is having a career-year, and is only 4 goals shy of 30, and 2 points shy of 50. He does everything. PK, PP, fights, hits. Most teams would love to have this guy on their team. Here’s hoping he stays in Pitty.

Petr Sykora has reached the 60+ point mark for the first time since 2001 with the NJ Devils. He’s also just 3 goals shy of 30, which would be his first 30-goal season in 5 years since 2003 with the Ducks.

Next, we have Marian Hossa. He’s been wearing a knee brace, isn’t completely at 100%, but has been playing amazing. His defensive play and takeaways, and speed especially while back-checking, have really impressed me. One can only wonder what his chemistry with Crosby will be when they finally play together.

Hossa has 6 points (1 goal and 5 assists) in his past 4 (full) games for the Penguins. He has an amazing production of 14:19 in his time with Pittsburgh (a League best), well up from his 23:29 in Atlanta this year. Since 2002, his production has been between 17:46 and 18:51. Looks like Pittsburgh is the right fit for him after all. After experiencing the magic of Pittsburgh, Marian may very well decide to re-sign there, even if it means taking 500K less cash per year.

Hossa has scored 80, 82, 92 and 100 points in his past 4 seasons, until slumping this year in Atlanta. If he were to re-sign with Pittsburgh next year, he’d surely get at least 90 points and likely return to 100 again playing with Sid or Malkin.

Lastly, the other not-often-talked-about acquisition at the trade deadline: Pascal Dupuis. This guy has been nothing short of phenomenal. His speed is amazing. His drive and passion are obvious. I think he is a perfect fit in Pittsburgh as well. After a slow-start, 2 points in 6 games, Dupuis is now on a 5-game point streak, tallying 9 points (1 goal and 8 assists) in that span. He hasn’t been mooching points, but has often made a brilliant pass for the first assist. In total, he has 11 points in 11 games as a Pen! He plays LW, right now on Staal’s line with Hossa on RW. So, I’d expect him to make the top line when Sid comes back, and Jordan to center the so-called ‘checking’ line at that point.

If the Malkin line stays intact, which it will, then I’d expect a Dupuis-Crosby-Hossa line. Those scoring lines will be frightening to face in the playoffs.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Sergei Gonchar.
Gonchar has returned to the 60-point plateau for the 3rd time in his career. In 2003 and last year he tallied 67 points, both career bests in full 82-game seasons. This year, he’s missed 4 games, but he’s on pace for 66 points, and this could be a new career year for him. His production of 30:42 is his best ever, outdoing his previous best of 31:53. Just like last year where he was 2nd in defensive scoring to Scott Niedermayer, this year he is 2nd to Lidstrom (currently 5 points back, having played one extra game). His +12 is 21st in the NHL for defensemen, but more telling, it is 8th in the East, behind Oduya, Corvo, Martin, Cullimore, Coburn, Hedican and Phillips. He is ahead, and in some cases far ahead, of Redden, Chara, Hamrlik, Komisarek, Volchenkov, Markov, Streit and Kaberle (the least three all in the negatives). This guy needs serious Norris consideration. Obviously Lidstrom will win it and deserves it, but Gonchar, not even on the All-Star Ballot but brought to the All-Star game anyways, should be in the Top 5 somewhere. If you watched him this year, you’ll agree he is the Pens most reliable defenseman in his own end (with the exception of Scuderi).

Lastly, we have to talk about where the Penguins true Cup chances lie, in their goaltender: Marc-Andre Fleury.
Just like Carey Price of the Habs, Fleury has been playing amazing of late. Both goalies have moved up the ranks, and now lie in 23rd and 24th for GAA with 2.61 and 2.64. They are also both now in the Top 15 with .917 SV% for the rookie and .913SV% for the Flower.

Last year, Fleury won 40 games, but his numbers weren’t all that great. He had a 2.83GAA and a .906SV%. He has improved both this year, especially lately.

What I really want to talk about is Fleury’s play of late, since the beginning of the season was brutal for all Pens, and the Flower missed a couple months since his injury.

Against the Devils he stopped 24 of 25 shots to improve to 6-1-0 since Feb. 28, and his save percentage is .939 over that span. He’s been .939 or higher in 5 of his last 7 games. He’s had a 1.31GAA in those 6 wins.

Habs fans: Carey Price has been similarly amazing. He’s 7-3 in his past 10. In his past 10 games his SV% is .935. He’s been over .939 in 7 of those games. Amazing! He’s had a 1.41GAA in those 7 wins.

I write this only to show you how great Fleury has been, and how hypocritical you all sound when you try to slan
der or criticize the Flower. He has been playing slightly better than Price, but even if it were slightly worse, it’s irrelevant to the point that both have been excellent goalies, and there’s little to fear from either, except that Price has no NHL playoff experience. Price is 20 years old and Fleury is 23.

Even more telling, Fleury won 6 straight before his injury. The first was a 6-5 shootout victory vs. the Sens. After that, in his 5 following wins, he had a .959SV% and a 0.80GAA.

MAF has won 12 of his last 14 starts.
In his 12 wins, he has a SV% of .949 with a GAA of 1.08.

No one can criticize his regular season performance. The only thing we have to worry about is whether he can keep this up in the playoffs. He sure has a lot to prove, no one doubts that. Let’s hope he can overcome his personal demons.

TEAM STATS

The Penguins are 8-1-2 in their past 11 games at Mellon Arena, and have averaged 4.73 goals over that span, including 25 over the past four games. Home ice is supremely important for the Pens throughout the playoffs, and I’ll show you why below.

At 35-14-5 since Thanksgiving, including 8-5-1 in the division, the Penguins’ quest to play potential Game 7s at home through at least three playoff rounds is noteworthy because statistics suggest they perform best when inside the NHL’s oldest arena.

They are 23-10-5 at Mellon Arena, which rates the East’s best home mark. They average 3.32 goals per game at home. It’s not that the Penguins are bad outside of Pittsburgh. Their 20-15-2 mark ranks in the top third among 30 clubs. However, they average fewer goals per game at 2.89 on the road and are essentially .500 against potential playoff clubs at 12-11-1 (something of concern).

The main issue for the Penguins, both over the final regular-season weeks and in the playoffs, is their alarming home-away disparity regarding the penalty kill. The Penguins entered yesterday rated 24th in the league with an 80.4 overall kill efficiency rate. Their 84.6 percent rate at home was sixth, but their 77.1 percent on the road was 27th.

Source: http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/penguins/s_558707.html?source=rss&feed=8

In the West, only one team has more than 225GF: The Wings with an NHL-leading 242.
In the East, 6 teams are between 231 and 240. With their recent big wins, the Pens find themselves in 4th with 233 goals. The Habs, with a game-in-hand, are first in the East with 240. Ottawa is in 2nd with 238 and a game-in-hand on the Habs (their next game, ironically).

The Penguins are the 3rd best team defensively in the East (based on GA). Their 204GA ranks 3rd behind NJ (180) and the NYR (184). In 4th, having played an extra game, are the Habs with 208.

The Habs and Pens far and away lead the East in the difference between GF to GA.

The Habs are currently in 1st with +32.
The Pens are in 2nd with +29.
Far away in 3rd are the Sens with +16.
The NYR are +14.
The Sabres are +13.
The NJD and Flyers are +11.

Only these 7 teams have scored more goals than they have let in (in the East), and the Habs and Pens do it the best. No wonder they are in 1st and 2nd in the East right now.

So, let’s do a quick comparison between the two.

The Pens have 5 players with 60 or more points. Also, the same 5 with 50 or more points, with Ryan Malone 2 points shy of 50.

The Habs have 2 players with 60 or more points, but also 5 players with 50 or more points, with A. Kostitsyn a point away and Higgins 3 away.

Conclusion: both have good depth, with the Penguins having more top-level talent, also including one of only two 100-point scorers this season.

The Pens have 5 20-goal scorers, with three trying to reach 30 (Hossa (27), Sykora (27) and Malone (26)) and one, Malkin, with 44 goals in 4th in the NHL. He is trying hard to reach 50 goals, and may just do it. He’d likely be only the 4th player to do so (Ovechkin and Kovalchuk already having done it, and Iginla 2 goals away).

The Habs have 4 20-goal scorers, with one 30-goal scorer (Kovalev (33)), and one trying to reach 30 (Plekanec (27)).

Conclusion: The Pens have the better goal-scorers, and again the upper-level talent in that area.

The Pens have ELEVEN 10-goal scorers. No more will reach that level.

The Habs have NINE 10-goal scorers, with S. Kostitsyn a goal away.

Conclusion: The Pens have more depth to score goals.

Note: The Habs do have 7 15-goal scorers, with Ryder a goal away, while the Pens have only the 5 who have scored 20+, with 3 guys at 12 goals.

The Habs have two defensemen who have scored 10+ goals and 50+ points. The only team in the NHL to do so (Lidstrom has 8 goals). Markov averages 5:10 for PP TOI/G, while Streit is 2nd on the team with 4:53. Kovalev is 3rd with 4:08.

The Pens have two defensemen who have scored 10+ goals, and Gonchar has 60+ points, but Whitney has lagged behind from last year’s heroics and only has 38 points (albeit 12 goals like Streit). Gonchar averages 5:24 for PP TOI/G, while Whitney is in 2nd with 5:04 followed closely by Crosby (5:02) and Malkin (4:52).

Conclusion: The Habs have a better PP, which sees a guy like Streit pick up a hell of a lot more points than Whitney, who has slumped. The PP may be huge in the playoffs if the refs keep calling them. If so, a huge advantage to the NHL’s top PP team. For their part, Pittsburgh is 3rd in the East and 4th in the NHL when it comes to PP success. It’s our PK that may do us in, as noted above.

What may be scary for Habs fans, is that their two leading defensive scorers (Markov and Streit, 4th and 6th in the NHL, respectively) are both MINUS players… Whereas Gonchar and Whitney are both PLUS players…

GAMES REMAINING:

The Penguins’ regular-season ending tour of the Atlantic Division continues tonight in Uniondale, N.Y., with a game against the NY Islanders. They will face the Devils in Newark, N.J., on Tuesday. The Islanders will visit Mellon Arena on Thursday, the Rangers on Sunday, and the Penguins will play in Madison Square Garden next Monday before wrapping with a home-and-home series against Philadelphia on April 2 and 6.

All in all, the Pens have the top seed in the East in their fate. If they can go 6-0-1 in their remaining 7 games, it’s theirs. If they can just beat NJ in regulation again, it would go a long way to ensuring at least a top 2 ranking come playoff time. Who knows, if the Habs and Pens keep playing like they do, perhaps they’ll meet in the Conference Finals. Personally, I’d love for the Devils and Sens to have to face each other first round, with the Rangers and Canes playing as well.


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