Seven Things the Pittsburgh Penguins Have Learned Since Game Seven

Sergey ZikovSenior Analyst IJanuary 31, 2010

On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings met for the first time since June 12, 2009, when the Penguins dethroned the Red Wings to earn the title of Stanley Cup Champions.

You can call it a re-re-rematch if you like, because these two clubs have been going back and forth for who can claim overall supremacy since the day the Red Wings walked out of Mellon Arena with the Cup back in 2008. But like the previous times, much has changed since their last meeting.

In fact, the situations are nearly flipped upside down from a season ago.

As the calendar turned to January 2009, the Red Wings were firing on all cylinders—healthy, experienced, and looking deadly as ever to make a run at their Cup defense. Meanwhile, the Penguins were idling under Michel Therrien, sitting outside the playoff picture with quite a number of players on the IR as well.

Many experts were quick to call it a Stanley Cup hangover of sorts, saying that the Penguins turn was up and it would be the year of the white-hot Washington Capitals. We all know how that story ended.

Now the Penguins are nested at the top of the Eastern Conference, fighting for home-ice in the first round of the playoffs while the Red Wings have suffered numerous injuries and face a steep uphill battle if they are to return to the playoffs.

But despite the differences, quite a few things remained the same from last June.

It's not quite a rivalry. The teams share a mutual dislike, but also a mutual level of respect. The teams would both need to rely not only on the superstars, but goaltending as well. And much like last time, the Penguins prevailed 2-1, all while learning quite a few new things about each team.

First, practice truly does make perfect. In the case of Sidney Crosby and the Penguins, this is no more evident than in the shootout.

It's no secret that prior to the 2009-10 season, Crosby's success rate in shootouts was hardly prolific, as he went 12-of-38 (32 percent) in his first five seasons. However, he has not only worked harder to improve his skills, but he also spends more time studying the tendencies of opposing netminders as well.

Now it's to the point of being surprised when he doesn't convert, as he's scored on six out of seven chances, including a dazzling backhander over the shoulder of Detroit's Jimmy Howard that would ultimately prove to be all the Penguins needed.

But it hasn't just been Crosby either.

Under Dan Bylsma, the Penguins have made the shootout drill a routine exercise in practice, as every shooter must try to score. Mixed with incentives, the only player to not score in the drill must complete a task for the rest of the team, most famously the drill at the beginning of a month where the loser must grow a moustache for the next 30 days.

It might be a "goofy" method of instruction, but the results don't lie. The Penguins are 7-0 this year in the shootout—seven points that will be absolutely necessary in the tight Eastern Conference playoff race.

The Penguins managed 40 or more shots for only the second time in six weeks, registering 47 against Howard. While they managed to put just one of those shots in the net, they proved again that when you shoot the puck, good things happen.

It almost came as a surprise to Jordan Staal, as he hasn't had that many scoring chances in weeks. Staal was a force all afternoon, creating major mismatches playing alongside Evgeni Malkin,  and probably would have bagged another hat trick against Detroit had it not been for the stellar play of Howard.

For 65 minutes, the Penguins buzzed around in the Detroit end, creating chance after chance simply by getting pucks on the net. It couldn't have been any more welcoming to the Mellon Arena faithful, who had been digging fingernails into their foreheads trying to get the team to shoot more.

They had registered 30 or less shots in four of the previous six, which simply is not Penguin hockey under Dan Bylsma. It sounds elementary, but if they continue to put pucks on the net like today, more often than not they'll see more goals being scored as well.

Great goaltending can cure all woes. Penguin fans have seen terrific examples of this just in the past week.

On the final game of a Northwestern Division road trip, the Penguins faced the unstoppable Vancouver Canucks, but were forced to do so without either of their top goaltenders. Therefore, needing to resort to a duo of minor leaguers, the Canucks scored at will and defeated the Penguins easily.

Next, the Red Wings were outworked, outplayed and out-muscled by the Penguins for the entire afternoon. But the Mellon Arena crowd saw Howard make save after save, denying the scoreboard numerous times and earning his team a much-needed point.

Although Detroit did have a few moments of brilliance offensively, it was that trademarked defensive devotion and great goaltending that earned them the point.

The same can be said for Marc-Andre Fleury. While he wasn't nearly as busy as his counterpart, he made the big saves any time he was asked to do so, including stopping both Detroit shooters in the shootout. Would the Penguins be the one with the two points today if they had to rely on minor league goaltending? Absolutely not.

The Red Wings are still a playoff team.

I don't care where they are in the standings at this moment. Whether they are first or 15th, this team proved that they need the playoff-type atmosphere and will excel with it.

They were not the better team this afternoon and were aware of it. The Penguins were winning battles along the boards, winning races to pucks, and most importantly getting more goal-scoring chances.

But the mark of a good team is when they can take points from a game they had no business doing so. Under Mike Babcock, the Red Wings have always had this ability, and will become exponentially more dangerous as more players return from injury.

We might not see the word "DETROIT" at the top of the standings in early April like we so often do, but this team is simply too good to not get one of the Western Conference's eight playoff spots.

Despite recent improvements, the Penguins' power play is not out of the woods. Heading into the game against Detroit, the underachieving unit had scored seven power play goals in six games.

But just as soon as it looks to be on the right track, they deliver two goal-less performances in a row and looked extraordinarily passive against the Red Wings' veteran penalty killers. Making many of the same mistakes they had previously, you wouldn't even know it was a power play from watching the game if the PA announcer didn't say so.

Grinding along the boards, playing fetch far too often, and not crashing the net.

Not a formula for success on the man advantage. While the Penguins have had their moments with multiple power play goals in a game, it's the consistency that has haunted them for the better part of a year. 

While it's understandable that they don't score every time, no team does, but when power play chances just wash out to sea with very little zone time and no quality scoring opportunities on a regular basis, something is not right.

These players are professionals and very good ones at that. They know what they need to do. Coaching, not to mention any names names, uhh Mike Yeo, need to do a better job establishing consistent results.

Another question, but it is becoming more common. Is Evgeni Malkin slowly developing into a winger?

Over the past three years, Malkin has seen his number of face-offs drop off dramatically. He's only taken 374 face-offs (compared with fellow centerman Crosby's 1,212) and has not even won 40 percent of those. Most recently in 2010, Malkin has seen more and more ice time along as a winger with Staal.

While defensively, it's not his position, one has to wonder if Bylsma sees a better winger in Malkin.

He only took five total face-offs against Detroit on Sunday, compared to his seven-plus average in last years' Stanley Cup final. Unlike Crosby, Malkin doesn't seem to care nearly as much about face-offs as he does about other aspects of his game, which is not a good trait for a center to have.

Only time will tell.

Finally, Sidney Crosby is a much different player than he was last June.

In last year's final, Crosby was neutralized for the most part by the Swedish duo of Zetterberg and Lidstrom. Shadowing him constantly, they did a terrific job to take away time and space from Crosby's playmaking ability.

But now, he not only is one of the best passers in the game, but one of the best goal-scorers. It's all because at some point in the off-season, Sid decided that he was going to take it upon himself to improve his game even farther by adding a goal-scoring dimension.

The Red Wings only allowed him to score once in the entire seven-game series, and that came on a 2-on-1. Today he scored twice, including the shootout winner.

Detroit also knew him as a so-so face-off man that would be under 50 percent against the best in the game. He made a major effort to improve that part of his game as well, and now not only leads the NHL in face-offs won, but has won 100 more than the man in second place.

Today, Detroit saw the game's most complete player up close and personal.


But will we see a decisive third edition of the Penguins and Red Wings, come this June?


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