2012 NHL All-Star Game: James Neal and Kris Letang of Pittsburgh Penguins Added

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2012 NHL All-Star Game: James Neal and Kris Letang of Pittsburgh Penguins Added
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Letang (left), Neal (center) and Malkin (center-right) are Pittsburgh's three All-Star representatives.

Injuries and bow-outs have opened up space at the All-Star game for a few of Evgeni Malkin's pals.

An injury to Winnipeg Jets star Dustin Byfuglien and Alex Ovechkin's suspension-driven absence have opened up roster spots for fellow Penguins Kris Letang and James Neal, who will join Malkin as the three Pittsburgh representatives in Ottawa.

A look at their seasons so far:

 

Evgeni Malkin

All-Star is a gross underestimation of Malkin's season so far. Hart Trophy favorite might be the more apt term, as Malkin is carrying the Pittsburgh Penguins' offense much like Sidney Crosby did a season ago.

The Ottawa nod is Malkin's fourth in six NHL seasons (2008, 2009, 2011, 2012) and second straight. He was the only Penguins player to be voted to the original All-Star roster.

Malkin has been the Penguins' best forward across the board. He leads the team in assists (32), points (58), points per game (1.38), plus-minus (plus-12), average time on ice (21:21 best among forwards), power play assists (13) and game-winning goals (seven). He also has the team's best shootout scoring percentage (71.4 percent).

Malkin trails only Neal in a few categories, including goals (28), power play goals (five), power play points (18) and shots (202).

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League-wide, his impact is just as considerable.

Geno leads the league with 58 points, despite having played the fewest games of any top-20 NHL scorer. He ranks fourth and seventh in goals and assists, respectively, and second overall in game-winning goals and shots on goal.

More impressive than the numbers are the circumstances surrounding Malkin's incredible run.

Malkin has appeared in 42 games this season, only eight of which with Crosby in the lineup. Letang, Jordan Staal and other key players have also missed significant time this season.

As a team, the Penguins have lost nearly 250 man-games to injury already.

With so much depth missing from the lineup, matchups become more imposing. Even as team's have been able to drape their best defensemen on the Malkin line, the production hasn't ended. Geno has nine goals in his last 10 games, the last seven of which have been Penguins wins.

Of those nine goals, seven have come in the third period or overtime, and he's scored in each of the three shootouts the Penguins have gone to—and won—in the last two weeks.

 

James Neal

Malkin and Neal are as deadly a scoring duo as exists in the NHL. It's no coincidence that Malkin's best season in three years has coincided with his first playing with Neal.

This season also happens to project as Neal's most productive yet.

In 49 games, Neal has already matched his career-high for goals scored (27), a number that leads the Penguins and trails only Steven Stamkos league-wide.

Neal leads Pittsburgh in goals, power play goals (13), power play points (19) and shots (210). At 47 points in 49 games, his .960 points per game average is the best of his career and second-best on the team.

His current output puts him on pace for career highs in goals (45), assists (34) and points (79).

With Malkin and Chris Kunitz, Neal is part of one of the best lines in the NHL. These three have played as a unit for only 20 or so games (Kunitz spent time with Staal and Crosby while Steve Sullivan was Malkin's other regular winger), yet lead the Pens in points as a line and are among the top-20 scoring lines in the NHL.

Neal is in a contract year and is making quite the case for his re-signing.

2012 is his first All-Star selection, one fans would argue shouldn't have required the bowing out of Alex Ovechkin (who trails Neal by seven goals and eight points) to lock up.

 

Kris Letang

If there's one player more important to the Penguins' success than goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, it's Kris Letang.

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Letang is Pittsburgh's best overall defenseman and one of its leading scorers, with five goals and 18 assists (23 points) in 26 games.

Despite missing 21 contests with a concussion and two more to suspension, Letang was named an All-Star replacement on the strength of his .89 points per game average, second amongst all NHL defensemen and trailing only Ottawa's Erik Karlsson.

The 2012 All-Star Game is Letang's second-straight All-Star selection. In 2007-08 and 2008-09, Letang was named to the NHL YoungStars Game.

No Penguins player is as impactful in all three phases of the game as Letang. He's one of the team's top penalty killers, the first-unit power play quarterback and eats up more even-strength minutes than anybody on the team.

He's even a go-to player in that nebulous fourth phase of the game, the shootout.

His value to the team is sometimes immeasurable, but here's one way to gauge it: Pittsburgh is 16-7-4 in games in which Letang has appeared (36 points, .696 winning percentage) and 12-10-0 (24 points, .545 winning percentage) in games he has missed.

Last season, Pittsburgh was near the top of the league in points from defensemen, and Letang appeared in all 82 regular-season games.

The team is well off that pace this season, and Letang has missed nearly half the campaign. It's no coincidence, as his 23 points account for nearly one-quarter of defensive scoring despite having played less than half the season so far.

James sucks. Let him hear it on the twitters @Slew_James or at SlewFooters.com

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