Pittsburgh Penguins: Hot Start in Steep Contrast with Last Season's Lull

James ConleyContributor IIIOctober 14, 2011

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 13:  Kris Letang #58 of the Pittsburgh Penguins controls the puck against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on February 13, 2011 in New York City.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Since reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 2008, the Pittsburgh Penguins have met the beginning of every season with heightened expectations.

With some of the game's brightest stars, an award-winning coach and an ownership group which spends to the salary cap ceiling every year, those expectations aren't misplaced.

So when the team began this 2011-12 season as one of the favorites to win the Eastern Conference Championship and reach the Stanley Cup Finals, fans rightly expected a hot start.

In spite of the league's busiest October schedule, the team hasn't disappointed.

Especially compared to last year.

The Pens have gathered points in each of their first five contests this season, taking wins from Vancouver, Calgary and Florida while dropping an overtime decision to Washington and a shootout to the Edmonton Oilers.

Considering the Penguins schedule, it hasn't been a bad start. They opened with a three game swing through Western Canada (some 3,000 miles away), played a back-to-back set and have already faced 2011's first seeded team from each conference (Washington and Vancouver), from whom they took three of four points.

Though the team is considerably healthier than most of last season, they've also taken eight out of a possible ten points without Sidney Crosby and Brooks Orpik. Marc-Andre Fleury has started three of the five games, and Evgeni Malkin also missed the Edmonton and Florida games with soreness.

Eight points in five games—when most teams in the league have only played two or three games so far.

Compare those numbers to last year when a healthy Penguins squad mustered only two wins in its first five games and dropped each of its first three contests in CONSOL Energy Center before finally winning there in an overtime game against the Islanders.

The biggest difference? Familiarity.

The Penguins began last season with two-thirds of a defensive corps playing its first game with Pittsburgh. Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin were offseason free agent pickups, and Ben Lovejoy and Deryk Engelland were AHL mainstays making there first regular NHL rounds.

The team was also transitioning into Dan Bylsma's systems of zone breakouts and puck retrieval which, even after a full season under his reign, hadn't suitably taken hold.

Those defensive systems don't just apply to defensemen. Forwards were expected to backcheck. Defensemen were expected to step into the rush. The systems were complex, and the personnel were new.

Coming into this season, the core pieces of the roster played with the team for at least some stretch last year.

In fact, Richard Park, Steve MacIntyre and Steve Sullivan are the only players to dress for Pittsburgh this year who spent no time with the Penguins last season. Even Joe Vitale, who is just now spending his first real time in the NHL, played in similar schemes at AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Given the rough early stretch (the Penguins will play 13 games in October, more than any other team), Pittsburgh has to be happy with the way they've started.

If good health and good play can remain consistent, they may not need a 12-game winning streak and otherworldly play from their captain to be near the top of the conference at the All-Star break.