Pittsburgh Penguins: California Preview

Eric NaughtonCorrespondent INovember 3, 2009

SAN JOSE, CA - APRIL 25:  San Jose Shark's fan J.D. Cox of Novato, California holds up a sign reading 'This is Sharks Territory' outside of HP Pavilion before game one of the Western Conference Semifinals of the 2008 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Dallas Stars on April 25, 2008 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Tonight, the Pittsburgh Penguins begin a four-game road trip. The first three games will be a tour through sunny California, the home of hockey.

Did I really just say that? Well, let's take a look at that.

The Anaheim Ducks are currently sitting at the bottom of the Pacific Division. However, they are a tough team and a perennial playoff favorite.

In the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs, they nearly knocked off Detroit which would have dashed the hopes of many for a finals rematch.

With a who's who lineup in Scott Neidermayer, Saku Koivu, Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan, Ryan Whitney (Enough Ryan's for you yet? They've got Ryan Carter, too.), Teemu Selanne, Luca Sbisa, Todd Marchant, and Joffrey Lupul, it's only a matter of time before this team starts clicking.

Since the lockout, the Ducks have made the playoffs every season and won the Stanley Cup in 2007.

As for the perennial losers, the Los Angeles Kings, they are neck and neck with San Jose for the Pacific Division lead. Anze Kopitar leads the league in points with Ryan Smith not far behind.

The Kings are finally coming together and part of their puzzle was solved when they acquired "the piece" from Pittsburgh. The Kings defense has decidedly improved since the addition of Rob Scuderi this past summer.

San Jose leads the Pacific Division and trails Colorado in the Western Conference by a single point. San Jose has been a Western powerhouse since the lockout but has choked consistently in the playoffs. Could this be their year?

These guys know how to play hockey and win games. Joe Thornton currently leads the league in assists, Patrick Marleau has 21 points (good for third in points behind Ovechkin), and Dany Heatley has found a home he likes and rounds out these top scorers in 11th place on the league leader list.

That brings me to the Penguins.

Let's take a quick look at their last 15 games. The first of these 15 was a 2-1 victory at the Joe Louis Arena against the Detroit Red Wings. That was Game Seven of the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals.

This season, the Penguins have shown little sign of letting up. After a disappointing preseason, Pittsburgh has a record of 11-3 and is currently on top of the league with a game-in-hand on Colorado. (The Avs have the same amount of points, but fewer wins than the Pens.)

Marc-Andre Fleury has nine wins and Alex Goligoski leads the league in plus-minus. For the first time in recent history, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are not topping the points chart. Crosby is tied for third in the plus-minus column and has nine goals. Tyler Kennedy leads the league with three game-winning goals.

Pittsburgh's superstars might not be putting up tons of points, but the team is playing together as a winning team. All but two players on the roster have made the score sheet and eight players have three or more goals. Only four players reside on the minus end of the plus-minus rating.

If you ask me, I'd also add that this is a team that hasn't even played to their potential this season.

The problem for the Penguins recently has been injuries. Everyone knew Maxime Talbot, the hero of Game Seven (Did I mention the Penguins won the Stanley Cup?), would be out for a few months after undergoing shoulder surgery in the offseason. But now, Gonchar, Malkin, and Kennedy are out.

Gonchar's impact has been loss of veteran leadership on the ice. People say that the powerplay suffers without him, but it wasn't performing well with him and Alex Goligoski is loving the power play. When Sarge is playing, you can just feel the comfort level is higher.

Malkin is out for a few weeks with a shoulder problem. It was showing in a couple of games before he sat out. I also suspect he was a little under the weather for a few games. Hopefully, Geno's parents will show up and his mother will feed him properly.

Kennedy is listed as day-to-day and he will probably play tonight against the Ducks but his absence was definitely felt the last few games. He has five goals on the season and is part of the Penguins' scrappy third line.

The Cooke-Staal-Kennedy line has been so effective for the Pens when it has been kept intact. They are the line that shuts down opposing team's first line. They are the line with the best cycle and forecheck in the NHL today. They come out after almost every goal (for or against) to provide an answer—either to get a quick goal to even things up or prevent a momentum shift.

With Kennedy back, I'm hoping this line will be together again. Staal centered the second line to ill effects against the Minnesota Wild. Sometimes, comfort level overrides any team's system.

The 2009-2010 Penguins are only one of a handful of teams to win 11 games in October. Dan Bylsma's regular season record is an astounding 29-6-4. That's pretty darn near close to a win rate of 75 percent.

I'm looking forward to three games of exciting hockey in California. I'm also looking forward to attending two of them. (I tried, but couldn't work out a trip to the Bay Area for the Sharks game.)


If you want to read my recaps you just need to visit Experiencing the Evolution.



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