Pittsburgh Penguins: Mid-season report card

James Neal has emerged as an elite goal scorer once again.

James Neal has emerged as an elite goal scorer once again.

Tuesday’s Penguins game vs. the New Jersey Devils was Pittsburgh’s 41st of the season, the exact halfway point of the 2013-2014 season, and what better way to commemorate the mid-season mark than with a mid-season report card.

Where they stand:

With a 29-12-1 record, the Penguins sit atop the Eastern Conference as well as the Metropolitan Division standings with 59 points, 13 ahead of second place division rival Washington and three ahead of second-place Boston with 56 points.  At their current rate, the Pens are on pace for 118 points, only one point shy of the franchise record of 119.

Offense- Grade: B- 

Such is usually the case with this team, it’s been a tale of two cities at forward.  Sidney Crosby is Sidney Crosby.  The greatest player in the world has been running roughshod over just about every team he’s faced so far this season.  He is on track for another scoring title, with 59 points in 42 games, and while he still trails league leader Alexander Ovechkin in the goals race by 9, a second Rocket Richard trophy is not out of the question.

While he’s sat out the last two weeks nursing a leg injury, Evgeni Malkin has been superb when healthy.  Coming off one of the biggest months of his career in November, Geno is still fifth in assists with 32, despite not having played the last five games.

James Neal has developed into one of the best pure snipers in the game, while Chris Kunitz will likely make Team Canada at the Olympics thanks to his dynamic chemistry with Crosby, and while the loss of winger Pascal Dupuis hurts, the Penguins top line does not appear to have missed a beat, proving once again to be the catalyst for one of the most dynamic offenses in hockey.

However, the farther down the depth chart you go, the outlook is not so bright.  Maybe it looks worse when you contrast it to the fact that the top six is so good, but Pittsburgh’s third and fourth lines are some of the weakest in the league.

Hamstrung by injuries, GM Ray Shero has managed to patch together a rag-tag group of AHL call up’s and waiver wire signings, that for the most part have been decent at not getting scored on every time the step on the ice, however Pittsburgh is basically still a one-line team.  There’s really not much you can do at this point other than throw up your hands and wait for everyone to heal.

Defense- Grade: A- 

Speaking of injuries, Pittsburgh was without it’s top four defenseman for a large stretch of the season.  Brooks Orpik has since recovered from a concussion and Rob Scuderi’s broken foot has healed, however Paul Martin remains sidelined with a broken tibia and Kris Letang is still dealing with a lingering lower-body injury that has cost him most of the season.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Matt Niskanen.  At one point the center of almost certain trade rumors, Niskanen has provided a leadership presence on the blue line that rookies Olli Maata and Simon Despres have learned from.  He has stepped up and led an extremely inexperienced group of blue liners by example, a large part of the reason they appear to be playing well beyond their years.  Robert Bortuzzo has filled his role well on the third pairing, and even Deryk Engelland has managed to step his game up outside of the fisticuffs department.  Given everything that’s been thrown at them and seeing how they’ve handled it, it’s pretty hard to not be impressed with the D corps of the Penguins.

Goaltending: A 

While his true judgment won’t come until the playoffs in April, Marc-Andre Fleury has been outstanding this year for the Penguins.  In fact, if I was to award one player on the roster an mid-season MVP, I’d be hard pressed to not give it to MAF.  His .920 SV% and 2.15 GAA average are both in the top half of the league, not to mention his league leading 22 wins and three shutouts, second to only Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins.

Backup Jeff Zatkoff has also proven himself a worthy backup, forcing the Penguins to reward him with a two year contract extension.  In nine starts, Zatkoff owns a 7-2 record, as well as a GAA of 2.52 and a SV% of .910, all solid stats for a rookie backup.  His solid backstopping has eased the pain of a likely retirement by Tomas Vokoun due to a blood clot in his hip.