Pittsburgh Penguins: 7 Players To Watch In Season Opener

Alison Myers@AlisonM_110Correspondent IOctober 6, 2011

Pittsburgh Penguins: 7 Players To Watch In Season Opener

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    The Pittsburgh Penguins will open their regular season on Thursday, Oct. 6 against the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, B.C.

    The Pens are looking to bounce back after a disappointing playoff exit in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, but they still have to start the year without team captain Sidney Crosby, who has made a slow but steady recovery from a serious concussion suffered during the 2010-11 season.

    Crosby is participating in no-contact practices and will travel with the team to Western Canada, but he will not be playing in the opening night contest.

    Although Crosby is the talk of hockey media and fans, there are several other players worth keeping an eye on for the Penguins.

    Here are seven players to watch not only tomorrow, but throughout the season.

Matt Cooke, Left Wing

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    In 2010-11, Cooke missed 14 games due to suspensions for incidents involving hits on Fedor Tyutin of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Ryan McDonagh of the New York Rangers. The McDonagh incident carried a suspension which kept Cooke from participating in the playoffs.

    Over the summer, Cooke told Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that he is trying to change the way he plays and doesn’t want to injure anyone. He said he reviewed about 20 hours of film on his hits to see what he is doing right and what he needs to change.

    When Cooke is not in trouble, he can be effective for the Pens. Last year, he had three shorthanded goals and was fifth on the team with 2:45 of ice time on the penalty kill. He also matched his 2009-10 points total with 30 points, his third straight 30-point season in black and gold.

Evgeni Malkin, Center

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    Malkin has had injury issues for the last two years. After playing 67 games in 2009-10, Malkin’s season was cut short last winter after 43 games when he tore his ACL in a matchup with the Buffalo Sabres.

    He ended 2010-11 with just 37 points, the lowest total of his career.

    However, Malkin will be ready to go as the Penguins start the 2011-12 season. Penguins fans will be watching to see if he can return to the form he had when he put up 100-point seasons two years in a row (2008 and 2009) and won the Art Ross Trophy, as well as the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs.

James Neal, Left Wing

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    Neal was traded to the Penguins as part of a trade with the Dallas Stars that involved defensemen from both sides. Matt Niskanen also came to Pittsburgh, while Alex Goligoski went to the Stars.

    There was a lot of hype surrounding Neal as a goal scorer, as he had two previous 20-goal seasons and already had 21 goals when he was traded, but he managed just one goal and six points in 20 games with Pittsburgh. The less than impressive effort gave him 45 points for the year, a significant drop from the 55 points he posted in 2009-10.

    Neal will have to live up to his hype more this year. There is speculation that he can play with Crosby when the Pens captain is back in the lineup, which will help Neal score more goals.

Steve Sullivan, Left Wing

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    Sullivan signed a one-year deal with the Penguins in the offseason after spending the last six seasons with the Nashville Predators. In the last five campaigns, however, he has only played 82 games once, a result of having had to deal with extensive injury issues.

    When healthy, Sullivan brings a veteran presence (he is 37 years old) to the Penguins’ struggling power play. With the Predators last year, Sullivan was fourth on the team with 2:43 of ice time on the power play. He also had three goals on the man advantage.

    In 44 games last season, Sullivan logged 22 points.

    Sullivan can still be capable of 50-60 points if he doesn’t get injured this season. This signing is a big risk for the Penguins, even if it is only for one year. Hopefully, he can make the risk pay off.

Joe Vitale, Center

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    Vitale may not stay with Pittsburgh for the entire season, but he remains in the NHL for now, as some Pens players injured last season still require additional time in order to get healthy.

    He got his first taste of the NHL last season, when he played nine games and posted two points. He ranked sixth on Pittsburgh with a 56.2 percent faceoff win percentage and added 18 hits.

    In 60 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL, he had 30 points and two shorthanded goals.

    Vitale is a solid penalty killer who has a physical edge to his game, so he plays out like a Matt Cooke type without all the "Matt Cooke" problems. This is his audition for a more long-term role with Pittsburgh, so if he proves enough, he has a good chance of getting an additional call up.

Deryk Engelland, Defenseman

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    Engelland finally got his break in the NHL with the Penguins in 2010-11.

    Prior to settling in, he had journeyed around the ECHL and AHL. After nine games with Pittsburgh in the 2009-10 season, he finally carved out a full-time spot in 2010-11.

    Engelland finished the season ranked third on the Pens with 123 penalty minutes while also posting 10 points. His presence and strong work ethic earned him a three-year contract extension, which he signed in January.

    Engelland will play a bigger role as the Pens’ tough guy, as Eric Godard and Mike Rupp departed via free agency. Last year, he dropped the gloves with heavyweights such as Colton Orr and Jody Shelley, so he is not afraid to stand up for his teammates or turn the tide of a game.

Marc-Andre Fleury, Goaltender

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     Fleury got off to a rough start last year, as he only managed one win in October and ended up on the bench more often than not in favor of Brent Johnson, the Pens’ backup, who was going through a hot stretch.

    But Fleury began to bounce back in November and earned his 150th career win. He finished the season with a record of 36-20-5 to rank sixth in the NHL in wins. He also had a .918 save percentage and a 2.32 GAA (ninth in the league), as well as three shutouts.

    Fleury’s commitment to turn his season around and earn his starting spot back was well-recognized by the fans and media. However, in 2011-12, he will need to get off to a strong start right away. If he does, he could earn the Vezina Trophy nomination, which some felt he was unfairly snubbed for last season.

    This article also appears on Bottom Line Hockey.