The building wave of optimism surrounding the Penguins struck a formidable levee over the weekend, as the New Jersey Devils won both legs of a home-and-home to take a three-point edge over Pittsburgh for the Atlantic Division lead.
While giving full credit to the Devils for their mostly-terrific execution in dual 3-1 victories, it’s not inappropriate to look at the soft spots on the Penguins roster exploited on Saturday and Sunday.
One weakness that was especially obvious against the hard-charging Devils forecheck was the injury-induced absence of Kris Letang and Matt Niskanen on the Penguins’ blue line. No offense to Simon Despres and Dylan Reese, but the puck-moving poise of that pairing isn’t on the same level as Letang certainly, and possibly Niskanen. Despres and Reese have limited NHL experience and it showed with the likes of David Clarkson terrorizing them in their own zone.
Fortunately, it’s just a matter of time before Letang and Niskanen get healthy and subsequently strengthen the Penguins’ defensive depth. Unfortunately, the blue line doesn’t strike me as the Penguins’ most pressing concern when facing elite competition like the Devils.
Last year’s Eastern Conference postseason champions put the kibosh on Sidney Crosby’s six-game scoring streak, holding him without a point over the weekend. Evgeni Malkin didn’t fare much better, recording a single assist in the two-game set. In fairness, Crosby and Malkin fired 10 shots each against the Devils, so they generated plenty of offense.
Ageless Devils goaltenders Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg were excellent against the Penguins, something the team won’t face every game. Still, when Crosby and Malkin are held off the scoresheet on rare occasions, the flightless fowl will need offensive contributions from more skaters.
Chris Kunitz (6g, 9a) and James Neal (8g, 2a) have done their part, taking advantage of riding alongside Crosby and Malkin, respectively. Pascal Dupuis (4g, 4a) and Matt Cooke (2g, 2a) have also produced at a level equal with expectations, given their roles with the team.
But that’s where the drop-off begins. According to BehindTheNet.ca’s shot attempts generated per 60 minutes (CORSI), forwards Tanner Glass, Brandon Sutter, Joe Vitale and Zach Boychuk have been outshot by opponents when skating at even strength, in some cases drastically. Cooke is also among this group, meaning he’s fortunate to be plus-1 at this point of the season. Craig Adams has broken exactly even in CORSI and Tyler Kennedy, who hasn’t scored a goal since the opener, isn’t far ahead.
Most of those results aren’t surprising, as you’d expect third- and fourth-liners to be among the lesser players on any team. Nevertheless, on a club with Stanley Cup aspirations, some of those numbers have to improve. For me, Sutter and Kennedy will be under the microscope in particular, as they are regarded as more valuable than your typical NHL bottom-six forwards.
The Penguins will be judged by what they do in the springtime. If the depth players’ output through 13 games is a legitimate indicator, the team isn’t quite ready to deliver on the promise generated by its recent five-game winning streak.