by PuckStopsHere on 01/15/09 at 04:01 AM ET
Last season, the Pittsburgh Penguins were a success story. Their 102 points won the Atlantic Division and placed them second in the East Conference. They were the eastern representative in the Stanley Cup final, eventually losing 4 games to 2 to the Detroit Red Wings. As a young team built around superstars Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, they were widely considered a team on the rise that would likely win a Stanley Cup before too long. They haven’t continued that momentum. Currently, Pittsburgh sits out of the playoffs in 10th place in the East Conference. They have a record of 21-24 (with four losses counted as regulation ties). They have lost more games than they have won this season. That is a remarkable drop from the previous season. What happened?
The biggest change from 2007/08 to 2008/09 in Pittsburgh is a dropoff in their ability to keep the puck out of their net. Pittsburgh has a sixth worst 3.11 goals against per game. Last season, they prevented better than half a goal per game more. Their 2.58 goals against per game placed them 10th in the NHL. There is also criticism of their lack of offensive depth, but I do not think this is an important part of the puzzle. Last season, the team actually scored fewer goals per game (2.93 vs. 2.98 per game) and struggled through a Sidney Crosby injury. Pittsburgh is a team that could be improved by better offensive depth, but that is not a reason for their drop in the standings.
The biggest reason for Pittsburgh’s dropoff this season is that they have not done as well keeping the puck out of their net. That problem almost always starts with goaltending. Marc-Andre Fleury is not playing as well this season as he did the year before. He has a .904 saves percentage and 3.01 GAA. That is significantly worse than the .921 and 2.33 he posted last season. Gone is Ty Conklin who played extremely well in Pittsburgh last year. This leaves the backup job to Dany Sabourin, who last year lost it to Conklin. Sabourin is consistent. He is playing about as well this year as he did last year when he lost the backup goaltending job. The difference is this year there is nobody in the system as capable as Ty Conklin to lose it to. The goaltending is worse. It is beginning to look like 2007/08 was a fluke season for Fleury, with his current numbers looking much more consistent with the rest of his career.
Their defence has taken a large hit from injuries. Sergei Gonchar has shoulder surgery before the season and has not played a game yet. Last season, he was a star for the Penguins excelling both offensively and defensively. Ryan Whitney, their second best defenceman in 2007/08, had foot surgery in the off season and missed most of the season to date. Although he is back, he has not found his form yet. Whitney is sporting a -9 +/- rating and only 4 points in 12 games so far this season. Gonchar and Whitney’s absences have forced Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang to lead the Penguins defence in ice time. These players haven’t been ready for that level of responsibility. Neither has thrived in their new positions and both will happily return to the second line when the injured defensive stars return to form.
Pittsburgh has essentially played without their top two defencemen this season. Although Whitney has been back recently, he hasn’t been in expected form. This significantly weakens their defence and exposes depth issues. Their goaltending has not stepped up to help solve that problem. Goaltending has been worse with Ty Conklin gone and Marc-Andre Fleury unable to play at the level he did last season.
There is talk of firing coach Michel Therrien. That probably sets up their next coach, whoever it may be to look like a genius. Pittsburgh is a talented team. Ryan Whitney will return to form. Things will get better with this roster. Their recent 3-9 spin is an aberration and not the expectation over the rest of the season. Pittsburgh should get better. There is little chance they will be the East Conference champion, as many predicted before the season, but they should be a strong playoff team. Pittsburgh has dropped due to lessened ability to keep the puck out of their net. This problem will likely be significantly fixed when their defence becomes healthy. The biggest problem is that it may be March before Sergei Gonchar plays this season. Nevertheless, it sets up Pittsburgh to be a team to come from a bottom seed in the east and likely be favored over the higher seeds come playoff time.
NOTE: Sidney Crosby left today’s game with an apparent knee injury. If that is anything serious, things could stay bad in Pittsburgh for a while.
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