5 Recent Trends That Should Worry the Pittsburgh Penguins
Despite an avalanche of injuries that have cost them most of their starting defensemen for long stretches of the season, as well as the immensely valuable and versatile Pascal Dupuis probably for the rest of the season, the Pittsburgh Penguins are right where they want to be.
Sitting comfortably in first place in the Metropolitan Division, the Pens are among the league leaders both offensively and defensively and look to be on their way to clinching the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the postseason.
However, there are causes for concern, and while they may prove to short-lived hiccups, they have the potential to be long-term weaknesses.
With just a few weeks remaining until the Olympic break, let's take a look at five recent trends that should worry the Pens coaches, players and fans.
Inability to Hold a Lead
On their recent West Coast road trip, the Penguins followed the same script in each of the three games.
While the Pens were able to beat the Canucks in a shootout and held on to win against the Flames, they were not as fortunate against the Oilers and lost in overtime.
Although the Pens records of 18-1-0 when leading after the first period and 21-2-1 when leading after second period seem impressive, their .875 winning percentage puts them in the middle of the pack among the rest of the league.
For a team with championship aspirations, that simply isn't good enough, and their ability to lock down games when playing with a lead must improve before the postseason.
While the Penguins are a league-best 25-2-1 so far this season when they get the first goal of a game, they are just 9-10-1 when they surrender it.
Given that the Penguins have surrendered the first goal in six of the nine games they've played since Christmas, it's clear that they are not coming out as strong as they should be and have not consistently shown the ability to come from behind.
In order to advance deep into the playoffs, teams must be able to lock down games when they have the lead and also be able to fight their way back when they find themselves trailing.
Not only where both teams good at capitalizing on early leads with playoff records of 11-3 and 9-4, respectively, they also demonstrated an ability to bounce back when trailing 1-0 and had matching 5-4 playoff records to prove it.
A losing record when surrendering the first goal coupled with a long stretch of slow starts is a recipe for disaster, both during the regular season and especially during the postseason, and it's a problem that the Pens must address.
Marc-Andre Fleury's Puck-Handling Adventures
As part of the new emphasis on improving their team defense, the Penguins have focused on having their defensemen stand up more at the blue line rather than backing into their zone, as they did too often against the Boston Bruins in last year's Eastern Conference Final and paid for it.
While this tactic has led to a reduction in the number of shots and goals the Pens surrender per game, teams have begun to counter by dumping the puck into the zone and forcing the goaltender to handle the puck.
This wouldn't be a problem for a goaltender like Martin Brodeur, an adept puck-handler and inspiration for the "Brodeur Rule" which prohibits goaltenders from touching the puck outside of the trapezoid.
Unfortunately for the Pens, while Marc-Andre Fleury bears a lot of similarities to Martin Brodeur in the net, there is little or no resemblance when he handles the puck outside of the net.
In order to avoid the kind of fatal puck-handling mistakes that have plagued the Pens over the past few seasons, their forwards must be more committed to backchecking.
This would allow the Pens defensemen to turn and chase loose pucks before Fleury has to handle them and cut down on the kind of self-inflicted errors that can cost teams games.
Lack of Power-Play Opportunities
Although the Penguins power play has been the most efficient in the NHL so far this season, the team's limited opportunities should be a cause for concern.
Despite the fact that the Pens' 39 power-play goals are tied for second behind the Washington Capitals' league-leading 40, and that their conversion percentage (24.7 percent) is tied with Capitals and the St. Louis Blues atop the NHL, the Pens are just 14th in power-play opportunities with 155.
While that may be due in part to the opposition's wariness of taking penalties, it is also the result of the Pens' lack of a consistent net-front presence, which is something that has plagued this team since Bill Guerin retired in 2011.
With four of their top six point producers standing 6'0" or less, the Pens are undersized when compared with other top teams, and that was a big contributing factor in their loss to the Boston Bruins in a four-game sweep last summer.
In order to avoid a repeat of that disappointing finish, the Pens must find a way to get to the front of the net to generate scoring chances and draw penalties instead of being content to simply play on the perimeter, as they are prone to do.
Lack of Puck Pressure
As a team built upon speed, with the ability to quickly transition from defense to offense, one would expect that the Penguins would be among the NHL's leading teams in takeaways.
That's why it should be both surprising as well as concerning to the Pens and their fans that the team is second to last in that category with just 243 takeaways through 48 games.
By comparison, the Chicago Blackhawks, a potential postseason opponent should the Pens advance to the Stanley Cup Final, have amassed 408 takeaways even though they are dead last in the league in hits.
Currently, the Pens stand seventh in the league in hits, but of the six teams ahead of them, only two (Toronto Maple Leafs and Los Angeles Kings) are playoff contenders, which demonstrates that hits don't lead to wins but takeaways do.
If the Pens are to advance deep into the postseason, they must find a way to force turnovers—not just by relying on hitting but also through consistent puck pressure and smart positional play.
Otherwise, they may find themselves on the wrong end of another short playoff series.