Knee-Jerk Reactions to Early Performances of Pittsburgh Penguins' Key Players

Steve Rodenbaugh@rodeyslContributor IIIOctober 10, 2013

Knee-Jerk Reactions to Early Performances of Pittsburgh Penguins' Key Players

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    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

    After sweeping their first three games in impressive fashion, the Pittsburgh Penguins have begun this regular season the same way they ended last regular season—looking like prohibitive Stanley Cup favorites.

    However, while it is important for teams to get off to a good start, Pens fans should keep in mind that three games is too small of a sample size to start making predictions for the rest of the season, even though it might be tempting.

    With that in mind, let's look at reactions to the early-season performances of some of the Pens' key players and see if they are just knee jerks and the result of early-season exuberance on the part of Pens fans, or if they are a sign of things to come this season.

Sidney Crosby: Hart and Art Ross Trophy Winner

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    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

    Reality: Sign of things to come

    Were it not for a broken jaw caused by a Brooks Orpik slap shot, Sidney Crosby would have easily walked away with both the Hart and Art Ross Trophies as the league's MVP and scoring leader last season.

    This year, Crosby seems intent on proving that fact to fans, writers and the rest of the league and seems well on his way toward claiming both trophies.

    With two goals and two assists in the first three games, Crosby has picked up right where he left off last season and continues to show great chemistry with Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis as part of the NHL's most explosive line.

    Known as a hard worker who constantly strives to improve his game, Crosby has also excelled in the faceoff circle, where he has become the Pens' go-to guy, having won 32 of 47 faceoffs, a 60 percent winning percentage.

    Prediction: If Crosby can stay healthy, he should be able to post 50-plus goals, 120-plus points and win the hardware that was denied him last season.

Chuck Kobasew: The Next Joe Mullen

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    Reality: Knee-jerk reaction

    While Chuck Kobasew's size, grit and willingness to go to the front of the net may bear some similarity to former Penguin and Hall of Famer Joe Mullen, his recent goal-scoring history says that the similarities stop there.

    With two goals in three games, Kobasew is off to a fast start and has validated the faith that Pens general manager Ray Shero showed in him. 

    However, Kobasew has not topped the 20-goal mark since the 2008-2009 season when he was getting 15 minutes of ice time each game for the Boston Bruins.

    Having spent the first three games on the third line, Kobasew may move down to the fourth line when Matt D'Agostini returns from injury and will most likely see eight to 10 minutes of ice time a game.

    Prediction: Kobasew will be relied upon for defense, forechecking and penalty killing, but like fellow grinder Craig Adams (who also has two goals already), he will be lucky to reach double digits in goals this season.

Tanner Glass: The New Matt Cooke

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    Reality: Sign of things to come

    Last season, Tanner Glass tallied just one goal and one assist in 48 regular-season games. This season, it's taken him just three games to match that total.

    While Glass' point-scoring binge may be short-lived, the physicality and antagonistic side that he has shown, reminiscent of Matt Cooke, most likely will continue.

    Having been signed to a two-year deal to provide toughness and strong play on the penalty-killing unit, Glass struggled to find a role during last season and was relegated to the press box for much of the Pens' playoff run.

    This season, with the absence of Matt Cooke, who left the Pens to sign with the Minnesota Wild, Glass has been given the opportunity to fill that role and has seized it with both hands.

    Prediction: While his current scoring pace is obviously unsustainable, Glass figures to get enough ice time to possibly exceed his career highs of five goals and 11 assists, which he tallied in Winnipeg during the 2011-2012 season. 

Jussi Jokinen: Goal-Scoring Machine

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    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

    Reality: Knee-jerk reaction

    While Jussi Jokinen's output of 14 points in 13 regular-season games with the Pens dating back to last season is impressive, Pens fans shouldn't expect his torrid goal-scoring pace to continue.

    To be sure, the "Finnish Army Knife," as Jokinen is known by former Pen Phil Borque, is one of the most versatile players on the Pens or any other roster in the NHL.

    While Jokinen has been known as an accomplished goal scorer, he has not broken the 20-goal barrier since scoring 30 in the 2009-2010 season for the Caroline Hurricanes.

    In addition, with James Neal eventually returning from injury and with Beau Bennett pushing for top-six forward minutes, Jokinen's opportunities on the second line may shrink as the season moves along.

    Prediction: Jokinen figures to get a plenty of opportunities on the Pens' second power-play unit, which should boost his numbers, but a more realistic output level would be in the 15-20 goal range and 30-40 point range.

Evgeni Malkin: Post-Contract Hangover

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    Reality: Knee-jerk reaction

    While cynical fans are always on guard for any drop in a player's production following a big payday, Evgeni Malkin has shown no signs of a letdown.

    Although he has tallied only two assists in the first three games, it has not been for lack of effort, as he has shown a willingness to facilitate for his linemates (most notably Jussi Jokinen) and has played a responsible defensive game as well.

    For those fans who are worried about his lack of goal scoring early this season, it should be noted that Malkin's production historically has gone up as the season has gone along.

    During his MVP-winning season of 2011-2012, Malkin only had seven points in his first six games before going on to finish with 50 goals and 59 assists.

    Prediction: Once James Neal returns to the ice from injury, teams won't be able to focus as much on Malkin and that, coupled with the strong play of Jussi Jokinen, will result in more open ice and scoring opportunities and possibly another 50-goal season.

Marc-Andre Fleury: Stanley Cup-Winning 'Flower' Has Returned

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    Reality: Sign of things to come

    As one of the few goaltenders in NHL history to have won both a Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal, Marc-Andre Fleury has had good reason to feel confident in his abilities.

    Unfortunately, given his recent postseason struggles, Pens fans and possibly some players have also had good reason to doubt him.

    Having endured a summer of trade rumors due to a horrific performance against the New York Islanders in the Pens' first-round playoff series matchup from last season, Fleury was given a reprieve by Pens GM Ray Shero, who opted to give him a chance to earn his job back.

    While some might argue that the loss of Tomas Vokoun to a blood-clot issue is the real reason that Fleury is once again the unquestioned starter in net, his play through the first three games—which included a highlight behind-the-back save (as seen above)—has quieted the critics and seems to have gotten him started on the right track.

    Prediction: If Fleury can, with the help of new Pens goaltending coach Mike Bales, stay focused on his fundamentals and avoid the soft goals that have plagued him in the postseason, he should be able to regain not only his own confidence but that of his teammates and return to championship-winning form.