The 2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins have left me feeling almost exactly the same way that 24:Redemption left me feeling back in November.
There was this big build up of excitement and anticipation waiting for the the two-hour backstory for the upcoming season to air—but by the end of it I was feeling rather unfulfilled.
Sure Jack Bauer did his thing, and was his usual bull-in-a-China-shop self, but in the end the final product simply didn't fill the expectations that I had.
That is exactly what I think about the Penguins this season. After seeing them play exactly half of their schedule, I have to say my expectations have not been met.
Oh sure, there has been some nice window dressing there to help me forget that the first half of the season has been a letdown. Evgeni Malkin has picked up right where he left off last year. Sidney Crosby is still in the top three in points, despite playing the season with a makeshift patch of past-their-prime NHL dregs and Wilkes-Barrie callups.
I truly believe, given his play this season, that Kris Letang will either be ready to replace Gonchar as our N.1 defenseman by the start of next season, or he will be the centerpiece of a trade that brings us a talented winger to play on Crosby's wing.
However, no amount of window dressing is going to hide the fact that the Pittsburgh Penguins have collectively under-achieved, and if the playoffs started today they would be on the outside looking in. Just another victim of the so-called Stanley Cup hangover.
Short of drafting an NFL quarterback, is there a bigger crap shoot in professional sports than trying to evaluate a young goalie in the NHL? There is a reason that teams almost never pick goalies first overall.
Most goalies (not named Brodeur or Roy) are incredibly inconsistent in the early stages of their careers. It's very easy to watch them put it all together for a stretch, only to later come crashing back down to earth.
I think we are that point with Fleury.
I believe that the second half of the season will go a long way towards establishing if Fleury has truly taken his game to that next level, or if the end of last season was simply a case of playing above his ability.
I give Fleury a moderate break on the grade in this area to account for his injury—but make no mistake about it, the Penguins will not make the playoffs this year if Fleury doesn't pick it up in the second half.
People are going to argue that not having Gonchar and Whitney in the lineup has hurt the defense. I am going to go in a different direction on this one, though.
If you go back and watch the tape of the Penguins march to the Finals last year you will notice that throughout the playoffs they played responsible hockey in their own end.
Say what you will about Marian Hossa, but the guy was a tremendous back-checking forward and that attitude spread throughout the team, and helped ensure that once the Penguins got the lead they very seldom gave it back.
If you watch the tape of just about any Penguins game from the past two months (excluding that Ranger game) you will see a team that looks absolutely lost without the puck. They are constantly getting beat to the puck in their own end, the forwards are not coming back in support of the play, and the defense?
Don't even get me started about the number of times I have seen a guy throw the puck around the boards without a Penguin winger there to start the breakout.
I will go on record right now and say that new trap Therien is trying to install is a huge mistake, and will almost certainly get him fired long before it solves what ails the Penguins defensively.
You would think that when your N.1 and N.2 centers are first and second in scoring league-wide things would be looking pretty rosy as far as offense goes.
Unfortunately, the Penguins have done it with a little bit of smoke and mirrors.
Crosby and Malkin are scoring a lot of their points when they play together. Usually this is on the power play, but also occurs sometimes when Therien juggles the lines.
The Penguins have lacked any real balance in their top three lines and they don't seem to have anyone going at the moment the way that Malone, Malkin, and Sykora did last year.
They are scoring a respectable 2.94 goals per game, but when you consider that the Toronto Maple Leafs are scoring roughly the same number of goals per game, a team with the talent up front Pittsburgh has should be scoring beyond a more "respectable" level.
Scoring fewer than three goals a game is fine if you are the Devils or the Wild. But if you are the Pittsburgh Penguins and you score less than three goals in a game, that means you are putting the outcome of the game squarely on the shoulders of the defense and goaltending.
To put that into context, look no further than the Colts-Chargers playoff game this year. With a flip of the coin, it was decided that the Colts would win or lose that game with their defense instead of their offense.
They still lost the game—rightly so—with their inability to stop the Chargers offense, but the outcome of that game would have been different had the offense for the Colts been able to touch the ball first.
Same for the Penguins as the season shifts into the second half. If the Penguins' offense can start firing on all cylinders, the Penguins will finally be playing games to their strengths rather than their weaknesses.
Can Sergei Gonchar get back into the lineup soon enough? I can't believe that I am sitting here hoping that Gonchar is able to do the Penguins what Bob Sanders did for the Colts back in 2006. In fact, has anyone made the call to see if Bob Sanders can skate? Perhaps he is the solution.
Seriously though, the Penguins' power play should be the closest thing to automatic this side of a Mario Lemieux penalty shot with Andre Racicot in the net.
I have heard people say that they miss Ryan Malone, but I don't buy that. He seldom played on the top unit anyways.
I have my own solution, and like any good solution it borrows from the past.
If the Penguins insist on putting Malkin at the point, then why not take Hal Gill and stick him right in front of the goalie like they used to do with Kevin Hatcher? You can't tell me that 6'7" inches of big slow-moving defenseman doesn't make for an excellent screen for that Malkin Bullet from the point.
I could also recommend Staal for that role, but I am terrified that a Malkin to shot the head is gonna kill someone on the power play—and call me cynical, but I would rather have Gill blocking that shot with his head than Staal.
The Penalty killing is functioning at a respectable 80 percent. I like the aggressiveness the Penguins show in killing penalties and I even give them a few bonus points for having a respectable penalty kill given the fact that they can't win a face off to save their lives. Surely Yannic Perrault is out there somewhere willing to play for the league minimum, no?
The half way point has given us a little bit of the good, the bad, and the ugly. I think the Penguins can build off the fact that they clearly show us their worst and have a chance to put it behind them, and still crack the top five in the conference and make the playoffs with their best hockey still ahead of them.
I think that before the March trade deadline, either Goligoski or Letang will be moved. I believe that Staal must be converted to a winger sooner rather than later, possibly freeing up Petr Sykora to play on Crosby's wing.
If Staal makes the conversion to winger successfully, then he stays. If he cannot play as a top-six forward then he will be packaged for someone who can.
I believe that Ray Shero is smart enough not to trade for Ilya Kovalchuck, and that the Penguins are going nowhere if they fire Therien and bring in Pat Quinn. Again, isn't Larry Robinson available?
I believe Crosby and Malkin will finish first and second in scoring this year although my reasons for believing this have more to do with my Fantasy Hockey pool than any real cold hard facts or evidence.
And last but not least, I believe that the Caps and Pens will meet in the Eastern Conference Final. I think that both teams have some pretty large holes and either would get clobbered in the Finals, but I think the league has too much to gain from this happening for it not to happen (Think about the 1993 Kings beating the Leafs to play Montreal in the final).
If the Penguins are not playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring, at least I will have my old buddy Jack Bauer to keep me company. Just like my Penguins, he usually takes a beating in the beginning of the season as the plot seems to twist on leaving him one step behind.
Hopefully, just like Jack Bauer, my Penguins will make the adjustments mid-season and snag victory from the jaws of the defeat at the last minute and deliver the world from terrorists while snatching up a Stanley Cup victory in the process.