Stock Up, Stock Down for Pittsburgh Penguins' Top Stars
Hockey analysts and fans are fond of saying, "It's not how you're playing in the fall but rather how you're playing in the spring that matters."
For the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team looking to rebound from a disappointing end to their last postseason run, that sentiment couldn't be more true.
Despite having run away with the Metropolitan Division, they must stay focused on getting ready for the postseason.
As the Pens enter the homestretch of the regular season and get ready for another run at the Stanley Cup, let's take a look at how their top stars are trending.
Chris Kunitz: Trending Down
Having scored 43 points in the first 42 games of the 2013-14 season, Chris Kunitz was among the hottest players in the league at the halfway mark of the schedule.
Since then, however, his production has dropped off considerably, as he was held scoreless for the Olympic break-shortened month of February and has tallied just six points in his last 16 games.
While fatigue from playing for Team Canada in the Winter Olympic tournament in Sochi may be partly to blame, the loss of linemate Pascal Dupuis on December 23 can't be understated.
Without Dupuis' speed and knack for forechecking and forcing turnovers, Kunitz has had to spend more time on the perimeter and in the corners digging out pucks instead of in the slot or in front of the net where he's at his most effective.
Since the arrival and insertion of Lee Stempniak into the Dupuis' spot, Kunitz has been more productive with two multipoint games in March—his first since January 23.
With Evgeni Malkin out for a couple of weeks, the Pens' top line is going to be counted on to carry the team offensively, but that won't happen unless Chris Kunitz returns to his early-season form.
Marc-Andre Fleury: Trending Down
After getting a much-needed and well-deserved rest during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, most expected Marc-Andre Fleury to have his best stretch of the season.
Unfortunately for the Penguins, it hasn't turned out that way, as he has gone 3-6 since in nine games since returning to the ice.
Having surrendered five goals in a game just four times all season prior to the break, Fleury has surrendered five goals three times since and has his last four starts.
To be fair, Fleury shouldn't shoulder all of the blame for his recent struggles, as he has faced 40 or more shots in a game three times since the break after facing that many only once prior in 2013-14.
However, given Fleury's recent playoff struggles and the expectation that this is a make-or-break year for him, he must get back on track with the postseason just around the corner.
Sidney Crosby: Steady
Considering that he has tallied five goals and nine assists in 12 games so far this month, it's hard to say that Sidney Crosby's performance has been down.
However, since both his March point total and plus/minus rating (minus-two) are the lowest for any month this season, it's safe to say that his performance of late has not been his best.
Overall, Crosby's performance could best be described as spotty, as he has had three games of at least three points while also being held scoreless in six games.
With Evgeni Malkin out with a foot injury possibly for the remainder of the regular season, Crosby will be counted on to carry a bigger share of the workload and to improve upon what would be a good month for almost any other player but for him has been a pretty average one.
James Neal: Trending Down
After missing 16 games due to injury to start the season, James Neal quickly made up for lost time and, in just the first two months after his return, amassed 14 goals and 16 assists.
In the three months since then, however, he has tallied just nine goals and 14 assists—a drop from 1.36 points per game to .85 points per game.
Although Neal is still averaging slightly better than a point per game (1.08) over the entire season, Evgeni Malkin's injury and expected absence will likely result in an even bigger drop-off in Neal's production.
With Pascal Dupuis out for the season and Beau Bennett's return in question, the Pens desperately need production from their wings if they are to make a run at the Stanley Cup.
To that end, they desperately need James Neal to be as dominant down the stretch as he was early in the season.
Evgeni Malkin: Trending Up
Unfortunately for the Penguins, injuries always seem to come when things are going well, both for the team and the injured player.
With the Pens running away with the Metropolitan Division and Evgeni Malkin on a hot streak with six points in his last two games, the injury bug struck again during a 1-0 loss to the St. Louis Blues.
Having sustained a foot injury caused by a slap shot—similar to the serious jaw injury Sidney Crosby sustained shortly before the postseason last year—Malkin figures to be out two to three weeks.
Already having scored five goals in March, his second-biggest output in any month this season, Malkin had looked like the former 50-goal scorer of years past and seemed to be peaking at just the right moment.
Hopefully for the Pens, Malkin will be ready to go when the postseason begins and will be able to pick up right where he left off with his dominant play.