By this point in the NHL season, every team has missed players for several hundred games. But the Penguins, the Penguins are:
-- without Brooks Orpik, their best defender
-- without sharp-shooting Evgeni Malkin (although not without his parents at the Consol from time to time)
-- without, of course, the best all-around player in the game, Sidney Crosby.
Just how on earth are they only 5 points behind the Atlantic Division Leading Flyers and the fourth-seed in the playoffs, heading into tonight's game in Philadelphia?
1. The Ham and Eggers.
I wanted to say 'ham and eggers' because it's one of my favorite hockey cliches, but also because the Pens would be hanging onto a playoff spot by their skin of their bills (or possibly on the outside looking in) without contributions from guys like Craig Adams. Oh, to sing the praises of Craig Adams, the guy who was literally signed off the scrap heap by Ray Shero in 2008 has turned into a penalty killing god. It's a good thing, too, because your Pittsburgh Penguins are the most penalized team in the entire league. (You know, if they'd stop taking so many stupid penalties, Adams wouldn't have to take 75 mile an hour pucks to the mid-section so often.) Think Adams is just an ordinary fourth liner? Think again. He's a huge part of the Penguins playoff push this year, one of the smartest players on the ice at all times. And I'm not just saying that because he's a Harvard guy.
2. The Wilkes-Barre effect.
Testy, Conner, Jeffrey, Eggo, Lovejoy.
It's not just Geno and Brooks and Sid missing from the Pens line up. Don't forget, they started the season without Jordan Staal for an extended stretch, and early on, they lost Mike Comrie (who was brought in to be Sid's wingman) and Arron Asham, who was supposed to score some dirty goals for them. Those two have missed a combined 93 games. The Pens have survived, thrived really, because they were able to call up guys from the Baby Pens like Mark Letestu, Chris Connor, and Dustin Jeffrey. Shero was able to pull the trigger on the Goligoski trade to bring in James Neal because Ben Lovejoy and Deryk Engelland have been so effective. I'd like to take a moment to point out that Lovejoy is +9, pretty darned impressive for such a young defenseman.
3. Flower Power.
Yeah, yeah, he started out slow. Okay, he started out worse than slow. He started the season seemingly thinking about pie. Or maybe he was thinking about Bastille Day. Or maybe he was thinking about his grandmother's traditional Bastille Day pie. Because he sure as hell wasn't focused on goaltending in the NHL. Merde. But he worked through it and turned himself back into the kind of net-minder who wins Stanley Cups. He has kept the team in games when the offense just can't get it going. I'll grant you that when he lays a stinker, it is a bad stinky stinker. But, on the flip side of that, when he is good, he is great.
And by this, I mean, adding Paul Martin and Zybenek Michalek about 30 seconds after Sergei Gonchar left town. Shero seems to make all the right moves, but perhaps none have been bigger than shoring up the defense with Martin and Michalek. The Pens never did properly replace Rob Scuderi after the 2008-2009 season, then last summer, they lost Gonchar and a very steady defenseman in Mark Eaton. Martin and Michalek are both defensive upgrades over Gonchar, the steady defensive presence that the Penguins were really in need of last year. Michalek has blocked over 1,200 shots this year and Martin is responsible for at least 2,019 clears. Okay, I exaggerate, but you get the point. Both of them are always in the right position and, now that they've played a whole season together, they move like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers out there. It's a beautiful thing.
I have to admit to having a hockey crush on coach Bylsma. I love his businesslike approach. I love how articulate he is. I love that he never panics. I love the fact that he is the anti-Bruce Boudreau. It's pretty easy to forget that when Shero fired Michel Therrien in February of 2008, the Pens were on out of the playoff standings and that nobody really expected much from Bylsma. But his smart, calm approach is the perfect fit for this team and the rest is such a crazy story that I still shake my head in wonderment. Also, big ups to Bylsma's coaching staff, particularly assistant coach Tony Granato, who is responsible for the penalty killing unit, first in the league in percentage of penalty kills (85.9%) and second with short-handed goals (12).