Despite All Of The Distractions, The Pittsburgh Penguins Remain in Playoff Hunt

Mad ChadAnalyst IFebruary 17, 2011

DENVER, CO - FEBRUARY 16:  Jordan Staal #11 of the Pittsburgh Penguins is congratulated by his teammates for his second period goal against the Colorado Avalanche at the Pepsi Center on February 16, 2011 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

So if I were to tell you that the Pittsburgh Penguins would lose Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal, and Evgeni Malkin for a lengthy period of time, would you expect them to still be in fourth place in the Eastern Conference? I know I wouldn't. Yet somehow, someway, the flightless birds are in in fourth place in the East, and are just a couple of wins away from passing the Philadelphia Flyers for first place in the Atlantic Division. This is a remarkable feat.

Although injuries are a part of sports, they still put a damper on a teams chances and produce a whole lot of unwanted adversity. Perhaps no injury put a bigger damper on a team and player's season then the concussion that Sidney Crosby suffered.

Before Crosby got injured he was on pace for his best season yet. He had a 25-game-point-streak, and was leading the league in points and goals. It's a shame that his season might be over to do a concussion, because it was on pace to be one of the best point totals in the last decade.

Unlike Crosby, Malkin was vastly underachieving by his standards, totaling just 37 points in 43 games. Malkin showed flashes of his brilliance from time to time, but never played his best at consistent level. Malkin is now out for the year because of a knee injury that required a season-ending injury.

Before Malkin and Crosby got hurt, the Pens had to play their first 39 games without Staal. Staal is one of the best two-way centers in the NHL and was a big part of the Pens winning the 2008-2009 Stanley Cup. Staal's season was delayed to an off-season surgery and a broken hand. Staal made his debut in the Winter Classic and has been playing really well since he's been back.

The Pens have also recently been without forwards Chris Kunitz and Mark Letestu. Kunitz is arguably the Pens best winger and is fourth on the team in points. The Pens are already thin when it comes to talent at the winger position and Kunitz missing from the Pens lineup is a big problem. Kunitz has missed five straight games with a lower-body injury and is currently listed as day to day.

Letestu was well on his way to having a very impressive rookie season with the Penguins. Letestu has 20 points in 50 games, including 10 goals. Some of those goals were big goals that either tied or won a game for the Pens. Unfortunately, Letestu suffered a knee-injury and is not expected to be back until the second week of March.

The Penguins have also recently been without Matt Cooke (suspension) and Aaron Asham (injury), which has caused a total team makeover.

I recently attended a home game against the Kings, and I thought I was in Wilkes-Barre, home of the Penguins AHL affiliate. Names like Nick Johnson, Brett Sterling, Joe Vitale, Ryan Craig, and Tim Wallace have all been asked to play and produce for the Pens. Other veterans have been asked to play a larger, and different rule then they usually do like Mike Rupp and Craig Adams.

Luckily the defense, which GM Ray Shero and the Penguins front-office focused on upgrading in the offseason, has been stellar, especially in the offensive zone.

The Pens have the number ranked penalty kill in the league and are fifth in the NHL in terms of goals against average. Obviously team defense is a big reason why, but goaltending is also a big factor for this, and results are showing the win column.

Despite a very bad start, Pens' goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has been one of the best goalies in the NHL and is having his best year statistically of his career. He's tied for second in wins (27), seventh in G.A.A. (2.29), and is tied for 12th in save percentage (.920).

Fleury has quited his critics and has put the Pens on his back and has been the biggest reason as to why they are still in contention in the Eastern Conference and in the Atlantic Division. Fleury is now the Pens most important player and should get some real consideration for the Vezina Trophy this year.

Lastly Pens' head coach Dan Bylsma deserves some consideration for NHL Coach of the Year. Although I've never personally been a fan of his, there's no doubt in my mind that he's a good coach and doing an outstanding job considering all of the injuries and distractions this team has endured so far.

The Pens have had a number of distractions. From Cooke's suspension, to the Winter Classic and the 24/7 HBO show that was a result of it. Also the debacle with the New York Islanders and the opening of the Consol Energy Center.

Although I don't believe the Pens can go very far without Malkin, and especially without Sidney Crosby, the fact is they're probably going to make the playoffs and might even have home-ice advantage for a round. If Fleury plays his best hockey, who knows? Maybe Shero and the Pens can make a trade, say Alex Goligoski, Tyler Kennedy, and a couple other parts for a big-time scorer? If that happens and Crosby comes back this team can still compete for a Stanley Cup. 

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