It's the best time of year!
We are over a month into the season, and the last two Stanley Cup Champions find themselves in a rut. The Penguins have struggled to resemble themselves, while the ‘Hawks haven’t been able to avoid the annual Cup hangover for defending champs. Neither would make the playoffs if the season had ended last night. Which team is in more trouble? Mike and I debate…
The Pens are in more trouble
By Michael Smith
Thanks to a Stanley Cup two seasons ago and a roster featuring two of the game's foremost stars, the Pittsburgh Penguins are going to have to get used to mountainous expectations.
While an 8-8-1 record and 17 points through 17 games are a far cry from meeting those expectations, it's hardly time to panic for the Penguins.
The questions remain, though. Why are they just treading water and can they turn things around? The instinct may be to blame Marc-Andre Fleury.
It's difficult not to cringe looking at a 3.23 goals-against average and a .860 save percentage. The only place those numbers belong is the back of a hockey card from the 1980s. Fleury has to shoulder some of the responsibility given the fact that the Penguins have been stingy in the shots department – an NHL-best 26.4 shots against per game – and have been scoring at about the same clip at three goals a game.
Fleury needs to be better, and he likely will. The turnaround may have started Friday night in Pittsburgh's 5-1 win over Tampa Bay, a game that was a lot closer than the final score appears. With his first win in front of the home crowd, and just his second all year, maybe Fleury has something to build upon after earning his 150th victory of his career.
Another area typically scrutinized when a team is struggling? Special teams. The Penguins penalty kill has actually improved a bit to eighth in the league at 86.7 percent. So, the problem doesn't lie there.
Where there is a bit of an issue, and it hasn't exactly been a secret the past three seasons, is on the power play. The Penguins have fallen off a bit from last season's already-low 17.2 percent conversion rate, finding themselves 21st overall at 13.6 percent.
One would have to think that the departure of Sergei Gonchar is a major factor in those numbers. Gonchar averaged around 40 power-play points a year with Pittsburgh (minus his injury-shortened 2008-09). With Ottawa he's on pace for that exact number once again with the man advantage. It seems Pittsburgh could use his services as a Goligoski and Letang-backed power play isn't having a lot of success.
Maybe the most important missing piece is Jordan Staal, who has missed the entire season due to a foot infection and a broken hand. He played the third-most minutes behind Nos. 87 and 71 last season and they were difficult ones against some of the opposing teams' best forwards. He logged over three minutes a game on the penalty kill as well.
It's hard to replace minutes like that. What's also hard to replace are his 21 goals and 28 assists. To have about 50 points of production suddenly disappear will cause problems for any team.
Staal is expected back next month, and that time can't come soon enough for the Penguins.
For his return to really matter, though, they're going to need to get more from Fleury and their power play.
Or, if they find themselves still in the same spot come December, those expectations are only going to get heavier.
Nope, Chicago faces a tougher task
By Ryan Porth
The big question heading into each year for a defending champion is whether they can stay away from the hangover from winning Lord Stanley. The new-look Blackhawks have had a hard time avoiding that hangover and are trying to find solutions as the road gets tougher.
For anyone who thought losing a chunk of the key depth from last year’s Cup run was not a big deal, think again. Yes, the core is still intact, but that depth – Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, Andrew Ladd, etc. – carried them at times last season (including the playoffs). The transition for the new young guys has been difficult.
Marty Turco, the most notable new face, has taken over for Antti Niemi between the pipes. While Turco has had his moments, he has also been inconsistent. Backup Corey Crawford’s struggles haven’t helped, either.
One reason why the goaltending may not be stellar is the team defense in front of them. Last season, Chicago boasted the best shot differential in the entire league (+9), allowing the least shots and tallying the most. This year they have a +1.1 differential… which isn’t bad, but nowhere near last year’s total.
Also, the aforementioned core has had its ups and downs. Sure, the offensive stars have shown up, but where has Niklas Hjalmarsson been? By no means is he known for his offense, but zero points (and a -8 rating) through 16 games is alarming for someone they paid $3.5 million to this summer. Defending Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith also has a minus rating (-7).
Currently sitting at 8-9-1 (on pace for 77 points) and outside of the top eight in the Western Conference, the ‘Hawks have a daunting road trip coming up. After this weekend’s games, Joel Quenneville’s gang will make their way to both Western Canada and California in what could be a defining six-game trip for this team.
And while they will play most of December at the United Center, they haven’t been so good on home-ice this year. The ‘Hawks are 4-7-0 at the ‘Madhouse on Madison’, continually losing games in the third period. In five of those seven losses, they’ve lost the game in the final frame.
In one-goal games the ‘Hawks are 5-6-1… last year they were 23-9-8.
Another reason for concern is the division they play in. There is not an easy game in the Central Division. With the emergence of St. Louis and Columbus, along with the annual consistency from Detroit and Nashville, the ‘Hawks have their hands full (as do the other four in the division).
Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and company simply aren’t doing the little things that made them so dangerous in the 2009/10 campaign. Whether they fix them or not rests on everybody’s shoulders – the core, youngsters, goaltenders… everyone.
Because of the division and conference they are in, I believe Chicago is going to have a tougher time getting back up to speed than Pittsburgh will.
Photos credit: Getty Images and AP
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