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Morning Skate: Penguins

Today we've got a bit of a change of pace on the morning skate as my buddy Hooks Orpik, who writes over at PensBurgh, answers some questions for us about the Penguins. 

WIIM: Brent Johnson started a good chunk of games early on but it has been predominantly Marc-Andre Fleury since. What turned Fleury's game around?

Hooks Orpik: Fleury started the season 1-6-1, with a GAA over 3.60 and a save percentage below .850. Rock bottom came when he got the hook in Phoenix in early November just seven minutes into the game after giving up 2 goals on 5 shots. There wasn't anything physically wrong with his game, mentally things weren't going his way and a couple soft goals were going in. Fleury's now near the top of the league in GAA and sv% and is 19-5-2 since the rough start. There's a small difference between being in a rut and a groove, and luckily for Pittsburgh Fleury's straightened his game out after a rough October.

See the rest of Hooks' answers after the break and  the usual pre-game stuff with the form.

WIIM: Is the team's slight struggle since Crosby's injury a testament to his importance or more of a team-wide problem that just happens to occur at that time?

Hooks: The team's stabilized lately. To not have Crosby around still stings and takes a lot away, but they've won two straight games and they're 2-2-1 since he's been out. It also didn't help they've played teams who play tight-checking, defensive minded games lately too, which is the type of team Pittsburgh (or any offensive minded club) tends to struggle with. Jordan Staal's working back into game shape too, which helps a lot. No one pretends he fills Crosby's spot, but the team overall should be better when Sid returns compared to when he got knocked out of the lineup.

WIIM: Your reaction on seeing Ben Lovejoy's face in 24/7? What was the Penguins' community's reaction to the series?

Hooks: I was glad to see he was joking and laughing about his face blowing up like a balloon because it sure looked nasty! 24/7 was awesome, it let the average fan get so much access and insight- from what the coach wants to do strategy-wise to seeing more of the personalities of players like Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Pascal Dupuis. Almost universally I've only heard great things about the production value and everything -- outside of how the story ended up with the Caps winning the big game, of course.

WIIM: At the end of the season, where do the Penguins sit in the East?

Hooks: It's shaping up to be a real dogfight with division rival Philadelphia for the Atlantic division title. The 4/5 seed matchup in the East, to this point, looks like it could be either the Pens or Flyers versus either the Washington Capitals or Tampa Bay Lightning, which would make for an intense opening round. Ideally, the Pens win the Atlantic and slide into one the top 3 spots, but they could just as easily see Philly win the division by a point or two and then it's a tough road back through the East.

WIIM: Is there any missing piece to this Penguins team or are they a complete package at this point?

Hooks: They've only played 2 games with the four big guys (Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Fleury) in there, so it's hard to say. Defensively Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin have helped them get down to one of the best defensive teams, statistically, with the current top ranked PK in the league and one of the best GAA teams. Up front Malkin's having a frustrating year, but there's hope Staal on his line will help him out. The Pens could always use an extra winger, as they have to rely on guys like Dupuis and Max Talbot in scoring roles that are a bit above their heads. But there's also salary cap concerns, so they definitely can't afford to bring in a big named Marian Hossa type player this year.

BONUS: When you see where New Jersey in the standings, what word comes to mind?

Hooks: Finally!

Thanks again to Hooks for taking some time out to answer the questions for us and if you head over to Pensburgh you'll see that I've done the same for him.

  • Joey MacDonald will start in net tonight again tonight as Jimmy Howard still has issues from soreness. MacDonald won his first game of the season on Saturday against the Blue Jackets. MacDonald has quite a bit of pressure on his shoulders tonight against this Penguins team. 
  • The Red Wings character in the Guardian Project was unveiled yesterday. Here's the link to the NHL's page and the Guardian Project's page for those interested (H/T to onevilklown)
  • Sidney Crosby has been incredible for the Penguins this year and although his on-ice personality is what people dislike the most, his skills are undeniable. Crosby leads the NHL with 66 points and is a goal behind Steven Stamkos for the league lead in goals.
  • With Crosby out, who is the biggest threat the Penguins have against the Wings? I'm picking Jordan Staal, that guy always finds a way to play great against the Wings and is certainly capable of stepping up in shorthanded situations. 
  • Speaking of Staal, for debate: would you rather have Staal or Helm on the penalty kill? It's a tough call since they're both solid defenders when their teams are a man down but I think I'd choose Helm with the speed advantage he has over Staal.
  • As Hooks mentioned above, Zbnyek Michalek and Paul Martin really tighten up this defensive group and have helped solidify it as one of the best corps in the league. They've definitely got both physical and skill defensemen. How will guys like Zetterberg and Franzen match up against those defenders?
  • Player of the Game Prediction: Todd Bertuzzi. I think he's going to be called on to use his size to create scoring chances against the Pens
  • Score Prediction: I almost typed the Penguins winning but you know what? No. I'm going to stick by my team with optimism after that Blue Jackets win. I think the Penguins overpower the Wings on paper at this point of the season but I think the Wings can gameplan and have a seriously good chance of winning this one, even if it's Joey MacDonald in net instead of Jimmy Howard or Chris Osgood.
  • For discussion: Where do the Penguins rank on your list of NHL rivals? 
  • Have at it folks, first day of classes for me so I don't know how much I'll be able to check in on the thread but I think things have become very conversational with everyone in the threads.