Despite a rash of injuries to key players, bad bounces and two separate three-game losing streaks, the Pittsburgh Penguins find themselves in an enviable and familiar position: first place in their division.
With the return of 40-goal scorer James Neal and Norris Trophy finalist Kris Letang, the Pens look like a team on the rise and, due to slow starts of their Metropolitan Division rivals, are poised to take a commanding lead in the standings and assure themselves of a top seed heading into the playoffs this season.
As the first quarter of the 2013-2014 NHL regular season comes to a close, let's take a look at where the Pens' top-six forwards stand and where they go from here.
Performance: 11 goals, 13 assists, plus-10, team-leading five power-play goals
Profile: Although he has not gotten as much press as his more-celebrated teammates, Chris Kunitz is quietly having an outstanding season thus far and is on pace for a career year.
Willing to go anywhere to chase down a puck and to do the dirty work around the net, Kunitz has been an indispensible part of the Pens since he arrived via trade in 2009.
Consistently among the team leaders in shooting percentage, Kunitz has topped the 20-goal plateau each of the past three seasons and is off to a torrid start this season with 11 goals and trails only Sidney Crosby (13 goals) for the team lead.
Always responsible defensively and among the team and league leaders in plus/minus, Kunitz has been an integral part of the Pens’ puck-pursuit game plan and leads the team with a plus-10 rating.
While head coach Dan Bylsma has moved Kunitz down to the second line at times recently to try to shake Evgeni Malkin out of his scoring slump, Kunitz hasn’t missed a beat and has only gone pointless in consecutive games once this season.
Performance: 13 goals, 20 assists, team-leading 96 shots on goal, 13.5 percent shooting percentage
Profile: Having missed the last month of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs last season due to broken jaw caused by a Brooks Orpik slap shot, Sidney Crosby entered the 2013-2014 season looking to prove to the NHL and its fans that he was really the MVP last season and should have won the Hart Trophy instead of Alexander Ovechkin.
Through the first quarter of the season, he has done just that and currently leads the league in points (33) and points per game (1.26).
Perhaps even more impressive than Crosby's offensive stats has been his improved defensive game, as head coach Dan Bylsma has frequently deployed him with the Pens' checking lines late in close games and has also relied on him to take key faceoffs.
Through the first quarter of the season, Crosby is winning 53 percent of his draws and leads the NHL in faceoffs won with 346.
With the recent return of Kris Letang and James Neal to the lineup from injury and the slow but steady resurgence of Evgeni Malkin, Crosby, already on pace for another 100-plus point season, could actually be more productive as the season continues and could approach his career average of 1.41 points per game.
Prediction: Trending up
Performance: Three goals, 10 assists, plus-five, 64 shots on goal
Profile: While much has been made of Evgeni Malkin's goal-scoring slump, Pascal Dupuis has also had his difficulties finding the back of the net this season.
Although he's not known as a big-time goal scorer, Dupuis has been among the team leaders in goals over the past few seasons, and his 20 goals in a strike-shortened 48-game schedule last season had him on pace for 34 goals over a full season.
This year, however, Dupuis has struggled offensively and has converted on less than five percent of his shots on goal after converting on nearly 15 percent of his shots last season.
While critics might point to his age (34) as the reason for his declining numbers, the fact is that Dupuis has been moved around the lineup recently due to injuries, and Beau Bennett has taken some of his shifts with the first line.
Since almost all of Dupuis' points come at even strength (only two power-play goals and two power-play assists since joining the Pens in 2009), don't expect to see him lighting the lamp as often until the Pens get their top-six forward rotation settled.
Prediction: Trending down
Performance: Eight goals, eight assists, minus-four, two game-winning goals
Profile: Since he was acquired at last season’s trade deadline, Jussi Jokinen has been one the Pens' best and most versatile performers.
Following up on his strong performance last season in which he tallied 14 points in 18 regular and postseason games, Jokinen started off fast this year and was averaging a point per game through the first week of the season, which included a hat trick against the Carolina Hurricanes.
However, Jokinen's point production has slowed considerably since then, and he has scored only five goals in the last 22 games.
While James Neal's absence due to injury and Evgeni Malkin's scoring slump have played a part in Jokinen's decreased production, they don't account for all of it, and the significant decline from October to November in both his shots on goal (35 to 16) and shooting percentage (17.1 percent to 12.5 percent) can't be ignored.
While Neal's return will create more time and space for Jokinen at even strength, it will also limit his power-play opportunities.
Until Evgeni Malkin rediscovers his scoring touch and can take some pressure off of his linemates, Jokinen will struggle to match his October production.
Prediction: Trending down
Performance: Six goals, 24 assists, minus-three, 12 power-play assists
Profile: Since joining the Penguins in 2006, Evgeni Malkin has proven to be one of the NHL's most talented and streakiest players, capable of incredible scoring binges as well as prolonged scoring droughts.
After scoring a career-high 50 goals in the 2011-2012 season and claiming the Hart Trophy as the NHL's MVP, Malkin has amassed just 15 goals in 57 regular-season games over the past two seasons.
Having signed an eight-year, $76 million contract this past offseason, Malkin had hoped for a resurgent year, but thus far, he has struggled to find the back of the net and is converting on just eight percent of his shots this season and nine last season after converting on nearly 15 percent of his shots in 2011-2012.
Despite the scoring slump, Malkin has been a force both offensively and defensively and leads the Pens in power-play assists with 11 and is third in shots on goal with 69.
With the return of James Neal to the lineup and the decision by head coach Dan Bylsma to occasionally insert Chris Kunitz on his line, Malkin, a notoriously slow starter, seems primed for a strong second quarter of the season.
Prediction: Trending up
Performance: Seven goals, seven assists, minus-three, 15.9 percent shooting percentage
Profile: Having missed 15 games due to an undisclosed upper-body injury suffered on opening night, James Neal returned to the lineup November 6 and has been quickly making up for lost time.
With 42 shots on goal in his last 10 games, Neal has made his presence known in the offensive zone and has tallied five goals in the past three games.
Given Evgeni Malkin's slow start thus far, Neal's return to the lineup has been and will continue to be a big boost for a Pens team that, apart from the top line, has been limited offensively at times this season.
His unique ability to find the soft spots in the opposition's zone forces teams to defend the slot area more and allows Malkin more time and space on the perimeter where he thrives.
With almost half of his points thus far coming on the power play, Neal has already made the Pens a much more dangerous team with the man advantage, and if he and Malkin can recreate the same chemistry they showed last season at even strength, he could be headed to another 30-plus goal season.
Prediction: Trending up