The Next 42: Five Things To Look Forward To

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As Stooh said in his recent domination, everything is pretty much back to normal now.  And now the road to the playoffs really picks up.  If you have followed an NHL season before, you know January is a whatev month. 
 
The best part of January, though, is that a bulk of the seeds needed for a playoff run are planted in the next 30 days.  January is really the last month for GMs to get a good look at their teams before deciding to make a deal. On the ice, you begin to see the elite players pick their games up toward the end of the month, while the so-so players and pretenders start tapering off from unrealistic paces they've been on since the beginning of the season.
 
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Reset.
 
After 40 games, the Penguins are 25-12-3. Pretty damn good.
 
Goals per game: 3.10 (ranked 5th in the NHL)
Goals against per game: 2.32 (2nd-best in the NHL)
Look no further.
This is why the Pens are at the top of the Eastern Conference.
 
Powerplay rank: 16.5% (22nd in the NHL)
Penalty kill: 87.1% (2nd in the mf'in NHL)

Most bizarre stat: Pens are 0-8-1 when trailing after two periods.

Leading scorers:

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Other than Crosby, the biggest surprise is Letang.
33-point season is huge right now.
Matt Cooke is the fifth-leading scorer?  Yikes.
 
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Fives things to look at in the next 42.

5. The Defense

The defense betrayed the Penguins late last season and in the playoffs. Moves were made to prevent that from happening again. In the first 40 games, Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin have been solid.  Michalek blocks more shots than MADD.  Paul Martin has made less than five mistakes all season, three of which happened in the Winter Classic. A shutdown defenseman like Michalek will thrive in the playoffs. And Paul Martin has been on the cusp of scoring several huge goals at a few points this season.  Michalek has, as well.  Now that they have settled in, the Pens D will only get crisper.

What's interesting is that it's taken us till the second paragraph of this to mention Kris Letang's emergence as a point-producing defenseman, filling the Gonchar void that we thought couldn't be filled.  This isn't even a paragraph anyway.  Engelland and Lovejoy have proven to be steady 6th d-men, but they ain't in "Mark Eaton is a solid 6th d-man" territory yet.  Orpik is Orpik.  And Goligoski is Ryan Whitney.

 

4. MAF

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If MAF has a big second half, he could put himself in the Vezina conversation. After his shitty start, he has been outstanding. If he picks up another 20 wins and lowers his GAA, look out. And, really, regardless of stats, a strong performance down the stretch may be the only thing needed to silence the haters for good.  That, and another ring.

 

3. The Playoff picture.

 
This is our favorite thing.
Mixing and matching possible matchups for the playoffs is great.
 
We look at the East like this:
Four really good teams: Washington, Boston, Philly, and Pittsburgh
Two rising teams: Tampa and Atlanta
Two jobber teams: Rangers and Montreal.
 
And, honestly, that is it. The lower East is garbage.
And unless someone puts together a huge winning streak, the top eight teams are basically set.

And now, to really make you sick, if the playoffs started today:

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Pens/Caps in the first round. Jesus.
No matter who you play, the 4/5 matchup is bad news.

After the first round, every Eastern Conference series may go 7 games.

 

2. Staal and Malkin

This is kind of like that movie you have been waiting for to come out, and now it's finally here. After not seeing him play for half a seaso,n you forget how valuable Staal is. Immediately apparent in the WC was how much room Staal is able to create room for Malkin.

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It is of the utmost importance to get a second line developed.
The chemistry is there. No clue who is going to play with them on that line, though.
 

1. Who won't be here after the trade deadline?

Compared to Trade-Deadline Day, the Winter Classic is trash.  It's one of the best days of the year, and it will be no different this season. Ray Shero has made some kind of move at every trade deadline during his tenture. So will he make one this year? Hard to say.

In one hand, it is a close team, one that's been near the top of the league after a crap start.  In the other hand is a team that has been carried entirely by the offensive production of Sidney Crosby.  We're sitting around waiting for Malkin to start producing some more, and that's basically it.  So something might happen.

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Tyler Kennedy hasn't been good this year.
If you can't think of the last goal a player scored, it is bad.
Kennedy has been skating with Malkin and Staal in recent practices. Could be his last chance.

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Goose has been another lightning rod for criticism.
He's getting paid good money.
He looks nervous on the powerplay and can never seem to decide when to pinch.
His defense isn't exactly all-world, either.
We still haven't forgiven him for that Lapierre goal in the playoffs last year, so whatever.

 

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Pascal Dupuis.  How can you trade someone who has 4 kids?
Only a bastard would do that.
Still, he's playing on the same line as Jesus, yet Matt Cooke has more points.
His lights-out work on the PK definitely has to be brought into the discussion, too.
 
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It is a tough year for the Pens because they have tons of free-agents-to-be, so some guys will be walking regardless. Also, we highly doubt Shero is going to trade any prospects or draft picks. The salary cap will come into play, too. There are some teams that will probably be blowing things up this year.  Get used to looking at the Oilers' and Flames' rosters. If we had to make a prediction, we still say the Penguins need another top-six forward. Comrie never panned out, and Guerin was never replaced, even from the Cup year.  If the price is right, you almost have to believe that is what Shero will do.  Go Pens.

 

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