Tuesday, April 28, 2009

URBAN LEGEND Are the Pens for Real Again?

*Posted November 20, 2008*

Preseason Predictions: We all knew that the team taking the ice at the beginning of October would be far different than the one that lost to Detroit in the Stanley Cup Finals. Ryan Malone, Jarko Ruutu, Adam Hall, Georges Laroque, Ty Conklin, and Gary Roberts all gone. Marian Hossa even left and signed with the loser Red Wings, for far less than the Pens offered him. After all the FA loses, we learned that both Ryan Whitney and Sergei Gonchar would be lost for large parts of the regular season due to injuries. Skepticism surrounding the 2008-09 Penguins was widespread.

Goaltending: I was a little upset that the Pens didn't try a little harder to resign Conklin, but the play of Fleury and Sabourin has been solid to this point of the season. Fleury continues to play like one of the better golatenders in the entire eastern conference. He will have the occassional bad game, but look for him to continue to improve and play at the level of last year's postseason. As I write this, it looks like Fleury will be out for a few weeks with a groin injury. Sabourin will have to step up and continue to play well. The Pens can and will get through this, but it is concerning the amount of injuries Marc-Andre already has had in his short career.

Defense: The signing of Orpik was curcial. Him, along with Hal Gill, anchored the unit throughout last year's playoff run. Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski have improved from a year ago and represent solid offensive threats from the blue-line. Veteran Darryl Sydor was recently traded to the Dallas Stars for Philippe Boucher. So far the trade seems to have favored the Pens. Rob Scuderi and Mark Eaton remain solid and Whitney and Gonchar will eventually return at some point. So far the defense has been a pleasant surprise and should only get better.

Forwards: Petr Sykora and Jordan Staal were nowhere to be found early, but have since come around and are beginning to score goals. Both Malkin and Crosby are at the top of the NHL scoring leaderboard and should remain there for the duration of the season. Miroslav Satan is certainly no Hossa, but does lead the Pens in goals. Faceoffs have always been a problem for the Pens, but they have been helped with the addition of Mike Zigomanis. The big question is Staal. Malkin and Crosby are signed long-term and debate on how good Staal actually is continues to swirl around Pittsburgh. Eventually, he will either get a lot of money from the Pens or another team. Do the Pens sign him long-term and hope he improves? Will Staal like being a third-line center for his entire career? Should the Pens trade him in a deal for a Hossa-type player at the trade deadline? I mean, there have been some Ilya Kovalchuk rumors. The team's decision about Staal may shape the remainder of this season and the franchise for years to come.

Outlook for the rest of the Year: At 11-4-3, the Pens have exceeded my expectations so far. The goaltending and defense are as good, if not better, than last year. The offense in general is probably slightly down from the end of last year without Hossa or Malone. If the nucleus remains healthy and if Ray Shero can add pieces at the deadline, the offense can resemble and possibly exceed last year's firepower. Sitting second in the Atlantic Division, the Pens are in fine position for this point of the year. With Ovechkin sort of headhunting Malkin earlier in the year and Alexander Semin thrash-talking Sidney Crosby, it looks like it may be a collision course to the Eastern Conference Finals between Pittsburgh and Washington. Believe me, the Pens would welcome that matchup. The 7-6 OT win at Detroit has been the spark of the season thus far. If they meet again in the Cup Finals, the Pens will have much more confidence than they did last year. A lot of doubt followed Penguins' fan before the season began. With a solid start and the play of certain players, they have surprised many. It should definitely be another exciting year for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

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