Regular Season Record: 45-28-9, 99 points
A Tale of Two Seasons.
That's the story for the Pittsburgh Penguins. There was an AD and a BC. We can call it Awaiting Death and Bylsma Coach. Not the most clever, but still true.
In the AD, coach Michel Therrien had the Penguins playing conservative hockey. Perhaps to cover the injuries to Ryan White and Sergei Gonchar on the blue line, two-thirds of his best defense, or perhaps because it worked last year. Either way, it wasn't working this year.
At the time of Therrien's departure on Feb. 15, the Penguins were a disappointing 27-25-5 and out of the playoff picture, including going 12-19-2 since Dec. 1.
After a 6-2 loss to the Maple Leafs, the change was finally made, and Dan Bylsma was promoted from the AHL to the NHL, and went on to take the Penguins on a wild ride, going 18-3-4 in 25 games, second best in NHL history.
Forwards: The Penguins up front feature what no one else in the NHL has, two 100-point scorers. Perhaps most unique about this feat is that they both center their own lines.
Sidney Crosby (you may have heard of him) spent most of the season with rotating line mates of Miroslav Satan, Ruslan Fedotenko, Pascal Dupuis, and Max Talbot, depending on what dice Mike Therrien rolled that night.
Occasionally, Sid was partnered with second line center and Art Ross winner Evgeni Malkin, who spent most of his time with Petr Sykora and a rotating cast of characters on-wing, including Fedotenko and briefly Matt Cooke.
A whole host of players came in and out of the line up with injuries, poor play, and coaching decisions dropped players in and out of favor. Finally, changes were made.
Therrien was fired and Bylsma implemented an attack first strategy, playing to the Penguins strengths. The return of Sergei Gonchar no doubt helped and the trades bringing over Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin made a forward-shallow Penguins team suddenly very deep.
Kunitz and Guerin, with Crosby, helped him come alive, scoring 25 points in 17 games. Malkin's second line faltered slightly, being a small concern as Petr Sykora has shown a bit of trouble transitioning to the new system.
The hope remains that Fedotenko on the left will continue to show his playoff spark from his Tampa years. Should any fail, Miroslav Satan is back from Wilkes Barre/Scranton.
And then there's the third line of Cooke-Jordan Staal-Tyler Kennedy. Since the deadline, they have had a part in 20 goals in those 17 games.
Defense: The blue line is steady, though not the deepest at first blush. Shallow all year long with the 52 absence of Sergei Gonchar, they did their best to patch up holes until their silent leader returned. Trading Ryan Whitney seemingly made the depth a little lower, but the return of Phillipe Boucher (acquired in a midseason trade) and his quick mesh with Bylsma's system helps fill out a roster that includes key player Brooks Orpik, PK specialist Hal Gill, steady Mark Eaton, under-appreciated Rob Scuderi, and a young Kris Letang, who has a smart offensive mind and plays bigger than his 5'11" frame portrays.
Goaltending: As long as Marc-Andre Fleury remains healthy, the Penguins are set in net. Since Bylsma's hire, Fleury has gone 16-3-4, with a 2.52 goals against average, and a .910 save percentage in 23 games. Backup Mathieu Garon is slightly concerning, going 2-1, and an additional appearance for a 2.91 GAA and .894 percent.
Special Teams: The power play continues to be a puzzling struggle for the Penguins. A team with nine players over 30 points on the season should be ranked higher than 19th at a 17.2 percent conversion rate.
The return of Gonchar helped, with 13 of his 19 points in 25 games coming on the power play, but it still remains an uninspired passing fest.
Their penalty kill, however, is a strength. Jordan Staal, Matt Cooke, Pascal Dupuis, Max Talbot all provide a steady forward presence and Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi form a very good partnership for the kill.
Mark Eaton also stays steady, playing sound positionally and blocking shots on a top-notch level. The occasional Gonchar appearance, underrated in his defensive prowess, adds the worry about a potential short handed chance.
Most Important Person: Interim head coach Dan Bylsma. After taking over for head coach Michel Therrien, his changes of the teams approach of attack and defense made an immediate impact.
The shrewd moves in trades by GM Ray Shero also changed the mold of the team. Bylsma has rarely faced adversity, however. How he handles his team being down in a series, and what changes he makes from there, will determine how far the Penguins go and whether or not he returns next season.