Pittsburgh Penguins: Few Changes Needed for Successful Second Half

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Pittsburgh Penguins: Few Changes Needed for Successful Second Half
Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

The Penguins recently endured a six-game losing streak that had pundits questioning their playoff hopes, fans questioning the players, and players (perhaps?) questioning the heart and status of their captain.

Dark days, indeed. Two wins, a sucker punch and one Evgeni Malkin natural hat trick later and the Penguins are back in playoff position.

After grabbing weekend wins over Florida and Tampa Bay, the Penguins are at least making strides in the right direction. They scored 10 goals in two games after managing just six in their previous six contests; six of the 10 coming off the blades of Evgeni Malkin (three) and James Neal (three).

The Pens are just past the halfway point with 44 games played (23-17-4, 50 points). They've got 38 games to make up the 10-point lead the Rangers have created in the Atlantic.

Six straight postseason appearances are no coincidence—this team is built the right way. But a few things have to change to ensure a seventh straight playoff berth.

Get, Stay Healthy

The Penguins have lost 227 man-games to injury this season, the most in the NHL and on pace for 424.

In comparison, last season's injuries were among the worst in franchise history, and the club only lost 350 man-games.

Sidney Crosby will be on the shelf indefinitely, and is set to revisit chiropractic neurologist Ted Carrick in Georgia to help with balance and movement issues. His status is about the same as ever: we'll know when he knows.

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Jordan Staal is due to miss another month or so rehabbing his knee.

However, not all news is bad news, for a change. Kris Letang has been cleared to return to full-contact practice and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Josh Yohe has speculated that if all goes well,  Letang might be ready for game action just after the All-Star break.

The Penguins will need their big guns back to return to a comfortable place in the standings, but if all four of Neal, Staal, Letang and Malkin are healthy and productive down the stretch, they won't need Crosby to lock up a postseason berth.

Puck Prevention

Pittsburgh finished sixth in goals-against and first in penalty kill percentage last season, keeping them near the top of the standings while half their forwards were felled by injury.

This season, the loss of Letang has been felt on the blue line.

The Penguins rank 10th in the NHL in goals-against (2.6 per game) and sixth on the penalty kill (86.5 percent), the first time in two seasons the penalty kill has ranked outside the top five.

Letang hasn't played since November 26 and his loss has been felt ever since. Pairings have been different in seemingly every game and Matt Niskanen is the only blue-liner to have missed fewer than five games this season.

The penalty kill has surrendered goals in five of eight while missing their two best penalty killers in Staal and Letang.

Tony Granato's unit should improve, and will have to improve, once they have all hands on deck.

Brent Johnson Still Reliable?

Last season, Brent Johnson floated the club while Marc-Andre Fleury dealt with a horrific start to the year.

This season, Johnson looks like a different goalie.

The 34-year-old backup is 2-5-2 on the season with a putrid 3.47 goals-against average and .876 save percentage. He hasn't won or finished a start since December 3 against Carolina and has forced Fleury to start or appear in 17 straight contests.

Defensive breakdowns have played a part in Johnson's poor performance, but the defense is only accountable for so much.

Johnson has had a terrible stretch as of late. While Brad Thiessen (14-10-2, 2.88/.884) is applying little pressure from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Johnson could use a few strong starts prior to the February 29 trade deadline.

James sucks. Let him hear it on the Twitters @slew_james or at slewfooters.com

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