The Pittsburgh Penguins got back to practice on Monday after a brief Christmas break, and they are looking to close out 2011 on a high note and carry any momentum into January of 2012 and beyond.
Pittsburgh is once again in solid playoff position in the Eastern Conference, currently sitting in fifth place with a record of 20-11-4 and 44 points. They have proven that they are consistent playoff contenders and can win without captain Sidney Crosby in the lineup.
However, in order to keep up their success, several key players must set individual goals and meet them throughout the remainder of 2011and going into 2012.
Hopefully, the players in this slideshow take their New Year's resolutions seriously and don't just stop following through on them after the first week of January. (I'm looking at you, all of you who resolve every year to go to the gym, get more organized and stop procrastinating...oh wait, that was me. Oops.)
Here are some good resolutions for a few Penguins players to work on in 2012.
Resolution: Keep playing a clean game.
Matt Cooke's pledge to change his game after a 2010-11 season which saw him get suspended to finish the year has been well documented by the Pittsburgh media.
So far, he has lived up to his promises, as I talked about in an earlier article.
Currently, Cooke has just 12 penalty minutes through 35 games, a large dropoff from the 129 he had in 67 games last year. He is fifth on the Pens with 51 hits, but is still hitting less than he did in 2010-11. He was second last year with 192 hits (an average of 2.86 a game). This year, he is averaging 1.46 hits per contest.
He is also on pace for his fourth straight 30-point season, as he currently has 13 points as the Pens approach the 40-game mark of the season.
However, Cooke must keep up his commitment and not lose control as the calendar turns. It will be hard to believe that he changed if he slips back into his old ways. One half of a season without a visit to Brendan Shanahan won't be enough to convince some fans and experts that the old Matt Cooke is history.
Resolution: Recover from concussion symptoms and come back strong.
What's eating Sidney Crosby?
This was supposed to be the year Crosby returned to form after suffering a concussion in January of last season. He returned to play in November against the New York Islanders and posted 12 points in eight games.
But on Dec. 5, he had a collision with David Krejci of the Boston Bruins and reported he wasn't feeling right. The Penguins announced Crosby would miss the next two games against the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders.
Well, here we are three weeks later, and Penguins coach Dan Bylsma has announced there is no update on when the captain will return.
Where have we heard this before?
Hopefully, Crosby can come back in 2012 and again pick up where he left off. He still has what it takes to be a dominant player, but that will never happen if he can't recover or handle physical play when he eventually returns.
Resolution: Hit the 100-point mark
Malkin has not had 100 points in a season since 2008-09 (when he had 113). Incidentally, that was also the last time he played a full season, as injuries have derailed his 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons and forced his points totals on a downward spiral.
Although he missed time early this season after having problems with his surgically-repaired knee, Malkin is back on track and on pace for a big year. He is third in the NHL with 40 points through 28 games, including a five-point game against the Buffalo Sabres on Dec. 17. He also had three assists against the Chicago Blackhawks on Dec. 20.
If Malkin continues producing at this pace, he will finish the year with 117 points.
Even if he doesn't, he can still put up 100 points and even be in the race for the Art Ross Trophy.
Although his points totals aren't a sure thing at this point in the season, the fact that he is back and dominating once again is a certainty.
Resolution: Earn a new contract with the Penguins
Neal disappointed upon coming to the Penguins in a trade with the Dallas Stars last season. He finished with just six points in 20 games (including only one goal) and also dropped to 45 points after putting up 27 goals and 55 points in 2009-10 with Dallas.
But now, Neal has stepped up as the Penguins continue dealing with injuries. He is second on the Pens with 34 points through 35 games, and is also first on the team and second in the league with 20 goals. His 10 power-play goals are also tops in the NHL.
Neal has the potential to hit 80 points this year and beat his career high in goals and points he set in 2009-10. In addition to the possibility of posting 80 points, he could also have 47 goals.
If he keeps up the pace and doesn't disappear for long stretches like he's done in the past, Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero won't be able to type up a new contract fast enough.
Resolution: Finish in the top five on the Penguins' score sheet
Staal has finished among the top five Penguins scorers just two times in his first five years in the league. That happened in 2009 and 2010, when he had 49 points and was third and fourth on the team respectively.
The other years, he has finished seventh in scoring, including last year, when he was limited to just 42 games because of injuries.
In 30 games this year, he has 19 points and is on pace to match his 2009 and 2010 totals.
If the season were to end today, the top five scorers on the Penguins would be (based on current points totals and production level, and assuming the top players don't miss anymore games):
1. Evgeni Malkin: 117 points
2. James Neal: 80 points
3. Kris Letang: 59 points
4. Chris Kunitz/Pascal Dupuis: 56 points
5. Jordan Staal: 49 points
As you can see, Staal could crack the top five under the predictions listed above.
The problem is, he needs to establish more consistency. Yes, he missed time again this year with a lower-body injury, but he has not scored in four out of his last five games.
If he can do that and stay on track, he will meet his resolution.
Resolution: Earn a full-time roster spot
Simon Despres was the Penguins' first-round draft pick in 2009 and is currently in his first professional season.
Prior to being called up to Pittsburgh, he had seven points and a plus-three rating with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the American Hockey League. In 10 NHL games, he has three points and a plus-two while averaging 14:41 of ice time.
Despres has seen his ice time increase over his last five games. In the Dec. 17 game against the Buffalo Sabres, he played 20:07, his highest total to date.
Make no mistake that Despres has plenty of competition for playing time on defense, as other strong, young players in Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo (if he can get healthy) will also be looking to make their case to Dan Bylsma.
However, it is clear the staff is beginning to trust him, and since he is under contract through 2013-14, he has a nice chance of breaking through before he is due for a new deal.
Resolutions: Recover from concussion and earn a Norris Trophy nomination.
Kris Letang is in a tough situation, as he has two 2012 goals to work through. The first, obviously, is getting over a concussion he sustained in a November matchup with the Montreal Canadiens.
Like Sidney Crosby, there has been no update on Letang's situation, and the Pittsburgh defense will need his help soon, even if they are currently ninth in the league with 2.54 goals surrendered per game.
Before getting hurt, Letang had 19 points and a plus-five through 22 games and led all Pens defensemen in scoring. He was also the leading defensive scorer in 2010-11, as he had a career year with 50 points and was second overall on the team.
Despite having not played for a month, he currently leads the Pens with 26:10 of ice time per game. He has all of the ingredients needed to be in Norris Trophy conversation, but that won't happen if he is unable to return when 2012 rolls around.
Right now, though, Letang is too valuable to the Penguins' blue line to think of dropping his name out of the Norris discussion. If he can come back and pick up where he left off, there is no way he is denied his first career nomination.
Resolution: Have a strong second half of the 2011-12 season
Paul Martin is currently out of the Penguins' lineup with a lower-body injury, but before going down, he was struggling and having a hard time being as valuable as he was in 2010-11, his first year with Pittsburgh.
This year, Martin has 10 points and a minus-eight rating through 32 games after posting 24 points and a plus-nine last season. He is also third with 18 giveaways after totaling 27 last season (seventh).
Martin has one of the largest contracts on the team as he is in the second year of a five-year deal and is making $5.5 million this season. He will make $4 million next season and $5 million in both 2013-14 and 2014-15.
His current statistics will not cut it with the paycheck he is getting, and Martin needs to turn his season around once he recovers from his injury.
Resolution: Earn a Vezina Trophy nomination
Marc-Andre Fleury has never been a finalist for the Vezina Trophy despite posting four 30-win seasons and one 40-win campaign during his career. While no one can say why this is (although his inconsistencies early in his career may have hurt), Fleury is on the right track to being in the discussion for the award.
Last season, he finished strong after faltering in October and early November. He had a record of 36-20-5 to go with three shutouts, a .918 save percentage and a 2.32 GAA. His career year earned him the Penguins MVP award.
So far this year, Fleury is continuing to show he is one of the league's elite goaltenders. He is currently second in the league with 18 wins and has a .917 save percentage, a 2.25 GAA and two shutouts. Unless he gets hurt or hits a big slump, there should be no reason for him to not get at least 30 wins again.
If Fleury keeps the Penguins in the Eastern Conference playoff picture and continues to display confidence in himself, he will at least get nominated for the Vezina, and it should be his goal to continue showing the NHL awards voters he deserves it.
Resolution: Regain form and prove that he's still a serviceable backup
Brent Johnson is in his third season in Pittsburgh, and was a bright spot in the early part of the 2010-11 season when Marc-Andre Fleury was struggling. His strong start helped him put up a record of 13-5-3 with a career-high save percentage of .922 and a 2.17 GAA.
However, for whatever reason, Johnson just doesn't have it this year.
In eight games, he is 2-4-2 with a .885 save percentage and a 3.23 GAA. He has lost four out of his last five starts.
Maybe it's because he's 34 years old, or that he's not getting enough playing time now that Fleury has been doing well.
Whatever the reason, Johnson has to get it together and prove he can perform well like he did in the past. If Fleury goes down with an injury, he will be depended on, as the Penguins do not have goaltenders in the minors strong enough to come up and carry the load.