The Florida Panthers will lace 'em up for a prime-time tilt against the Pittsburgh Penguins Tuesday in Consol Energy Center. I got to trade off some questions with the inimitable Eric Bowser from our SBN sister site PensBurgh.
First things first. I know everyone in Pittsburgh must be worried about this, so let me get it out of the way. Despite leading all Penguins' forwards with over 20 minutes of average time on ice, Sidney Crosby has totaled zero points on eight shots. Is this the end of "the dream" or are reports of his imminent demise greatly exaggerated? The larger issue has to be the offense as a whole - with seven goals in five games. If Mike Johnston can't count on "Sid the Kid," where will he be looking for secondary (or primary, as it were) scoring options?
It is concerning for Sidney Crosby to start any season with zero points, let alone none in the first five games of the season. He's traditionally a strong starter but this season, an inept power play (0 for 17) has also contributed to a pointless start for the perennial "best player in the world". Crosby is still working the boards as well as any player in the game and his vision to find the open man (Chris Kunitzand Phil Kessel) is unmatched.
What cannot be denied for those who watch Crosby every game is that since the concussion, he's lost an edge to his game. He's not willing to consistently attack the middle of the ice, with or without the puck. He's far too often found skating along the edges of the "house" or does the Wayne Gretzky stop and curl in the high offensive zone. While pretty and sometimes works to find a late man, far too often, he's limited the attack and allowed the opposition to regain positional advantage. Crosby changed his game since the concussion but that isn't the biggest injury to hurt his game.
Since injuring his wrist in a game against the Blues in 2014, he just hasn't been the same shooter from an accuracy perspective and he's taking less shots. Crosby might never be the same guy who pushed defenses back and threatened to score 50 goals in a season, but he still has the mindset and skills to score 25-30 and change his game to be much like Ron Francis in the final ten years of his career.
Secondary scoring shouldn't be a problem this season with Evgeni Malkin on the second line and additions of Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen, Daniel Sprong, and Eric Fehr. Sprong is the big variable this season. He's going to keep surprising fans across the NHL if the team keeps him beyond the nine game limit. The 18-year old could be the first star winger drafted and developed by the Penguins during the Crosby and Malkin era.
The flip side of the coin, as far as scoring in Penguins' games, anyway, is the defense and goaltending. Despite a 2-3-0 record, Marc-Andre Fleury has a .937 save percentage and a 1.82 GAA. Over a full season, this would represent Veniza caliber numbers. As a team, the Pens have allowed just nine goals. This ties them for third in the NHL with four other teams (including the Panthers). Can the club keep up this pace in their own zone - and can Fleury continue to put up numbers and challenge for a Veniza?
Marc-Andre Fleury is a good goaltender but based on the style of play in Pittsburgh, I don't expect those numbers to continue throughout the season. Depth is a problem on defense, which will hurt the team as the season progresses. Kris Letang and Olli Maatta are heads and shoulders above the other five defensemen on the roster.
Many of us expected Head Coach Mike Johnston and Assistant Coach Gary Agnew to align their top pairing as Maatta and Letang but due to depth and talent concerns, they've had separate them on other pairings. Ian Cole has been okay alongside Letang in the first five games but the Maatta and Ben Lovejoy pairing wasn't too good, so on Saturday night, Johnston and Agnew changed things up pairing the much maligned Rob Scuderi with Maatta.
Keep your eye on Brian Dumoulin, he's been a steady defender this season after having a strong AHL season and first round playoff experience.
Despite an admittedly small sample size, the Pens currently sit at 10th in a crowded Eastern Conference. What is the larger expectation for this club? Would a six-seed and a first round exit sate the fans - or is anything less than the cup not acceptable. Related - how far do you see Pittsburgh getting in the playoffs?
I had high expectations for the team's fowards to help cover up for a lot of the problems on defense and get involved in high scoring affairs. It hasn't happened because of the power play problems but as the season goes along, we should see more offense from the Penguins. Though I expected a stronger offense, I didn't think that was going to translate to a division title and after five games, nothing has changed my mind on that front.The general fan expectation that I've seen has ranged from first place in the conference to playing on the edge all season.
The Penguins will probably battle all season to stick in the 5-8 position for a playoff spot and then a coin-flip come playoff time. Playoffs will depend on their health and playoff matchup, especially if it is against a goalie like Henrik Lundqvist.
If the team fails to make the playoffs, no doubt Mike Johnston would be fired and real questions about the roster construction will have to be asked with Crosby and Malkin heading into their final years of prime hockey.
We here at LBC would like to thank Eric for his thoughtful insight into our next opponent. You can follow Mr. Bowser on twitter at @412Eric. Check out PensBurgh for my answers to his questions, here, and make sure you head back this way for assorted bread and circuses as we lead up to Tuesday night's face-off at 7 PM EST.