Here we are, about a third of the way through the season, and some Penguins fans are getting nervous.
The Pens seem to be falling a bit short of expectations, and injury problems are plaguing them again, for the second season in a row.
Backup goalie Dany Sabourin, whose play has been stellar at times, has looked downright mortal lately.
The return of Marc-Andre Fleury can't come soon enough. He has already missed more games than observers expected, when he sustained an undisclosed injury after the win against Buffalo on Nov. 15.
At the time, there was little reason for concern; the Penguins were hot, confidence in Sabourin was high, and the Pens seemed to be coasting along. The team was hardly missing the defensive contributions of Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney, both out due to injury.
But now the Pens are stumbling a bit, losing leads, and generating lackluster play. Fans are shifting in their seats as the Pens are slipping in the standings, hoping that this slump is a short one.
When Fleury went down, it didn't seem that he would be out for very long—an undisclosed lower body injury that didn't even get him yanked from the game in which it occurred couldn't be too serious, right?
The "mystery" injury seems to have turned into a moderate groin pull—a tricky injury to rehab for a goalie—but his return is finally imminent. Barring a setback in practice, he should start when the Pens meet Atlanta on Thursday (Dec. 18).
So now what? Dany Sabourin is a capable backup, and even though he struggled a bit at times as the fill-in starter, he isn't solely to be blamed for most of the losses the Pens have incurred with him in the net.
Side Note: Baby Pens goalie John Curry raised his stock value considerably, with strong performances during his first NHL stint. Figuring out what to do with him might be a pleasant problem for GM Ray Shero after the season.
Most hockey analysts (and this writer) believe the Pens' poor showings have more to do with basic hockey: lack of muscle in front of the net on both ends of the ice. Here is where the Pens miss Gary Roberts and Ryan Malone, not to mention a healthy Hal Gill.
The return of Fleury will obviously be a morale boost and should inject a bit more jump in the team for a few games. But in the long term, Shero may have to help Coach Michel Therrien find ways to beef up the Penguins' presence around the net.
Besides having an all-world goalie in net, one of the best ways to improve the number of goals you give up is to posses the puck more. It's no secret that the Penguins have an astonishing amount of talent up front, but there is a flip side.
When elite players enter the zone they try to make elite plays—i.e, "tic-tac-toe" plays—and that's a good thing.
However, grinders are the guys that will hold the puck in the offensive zone by chipping it deep, forechecking hard, and generally outworking the opponents in the corners. All this while someone body-wrestles his way in front of the net, looking for table scraps—that is a rebound or a deflection.
While all that is going on, your goalie is not having to block shots. Although you might see Crosby and sometimes Malkin working hard in the corners, that kind of play is not the strength of the Penguins' top two lines, and it shouldn't be.
The problem for the Penguins might be more of a PR one. They are really good at highlight reel hockey—and I for one can never get enough of that—but the blue-collar part of their game needs some work.
Basically, it is time for the Penguins' third and fourth lines to start stepping up and owning the puck, to go along with the occasional brick wall performance needed in net, to produce consistent winning hockey.
So here is the cure for what ails the Penguins: a large dose of grit, about 220 pounds of muscle up front, more dirty goals, and yes, a dash of Fleury.