Originally posted on Bleed Black & Gold  |  Last updated 11/12/11

Less than a season removed from his old team, Penguins winger James Neal was hoping to have a big night when the Stars came to Pittsburgh Friday night, and have a big night he most certainly did.  Neal netted two PP goals to lead the Penguins to a 3-1 victory against the surprise Western Conference leading Dallas Stars.

In what was one of the more complete games the Pens have played this year, the Stars just couldn’t answer the speed in which the Penguins attacked with.  The Pens spent most of the game buzzing around the ice to put the outmatched Stars on the heels eventhough they were up 1-0 after the 1st period.  It really was just a matter of time until the Penguins seized control because the Stars just couldn’t mount any sustained pressure for a majority of this contest.

The Pens tied the score in the 2nd on a well placed wrist shot from neal from about 20 feet that found it’s way under Kari Lehtonen’s arm and in the net.  It happened just seconds after having a beautiful deflection by Kunitz waved off by what was called a high stick on the puck (a suspect call if you ask me).  Then again, in the 3rd, the Penguins had anothert PP goal waived off when Malkin threw a puck towards the net and off a Stars defenseman and in, but it was ruled the Kunitz this time interfered with the netminder so that he couldn’t make the save (another questionable call).  Once more though the Penguins were unphased as Neal was able to convert seconds later to take the lead.  Cooke would add a goal courtesy of a penalty shot later in the period to seal the deal.

This was a quality win for the Penguins who were once again without captain Sidney Crosby as he was ruled out for both games this weekend.  The Stars were riding high after winning 4 straight and they were amped up after dominating the Capitals in a 5-2 win the other night.  The Pens D though was able to take one of the leagues premiere scoring offenses out of any kind of rhythem as they were only able to muster up 20 shots, most of which were not very threatening.  It really is amazing what this defense has been able to do with the injuries and suspensions the Pens have dealt with on their blue line.  Orpik, Letang and Michalek have all spent time away from the ice but players like Martin, Engelland and Niskanen continually step up and give the Pens some very valuable minutes in front of Marc-Andre Fleury.

Speaking of Fleury, how awesome has he been in the ealy going?  He has been as consistant as I’ve ever seen him between the pipes.  He is playing much more controlled than in the past, and even though he still struggles a little handling the puck outside the net, he has been one of the brightest spots for the Pens in the early part of the season.  What’s funny about it though is that he has been flying under the radar on the national level even though his numbers are on par with any other goalie in the NHL (1.87 GAA and .932 save %).  Perhaps that’s a good thing though as Fleury seems to lose his edge a little when he gets overly hyped up.  After he was named to the Canadian Olympic team, he slumped and then he did again to start last year after he was in the preseason discussion for the Vezina Award.  This season he seems to be lost in the discussion (even though I posted that he was a favorite before the season started) with goalies like Khabibulin and Quick playing so well, but it is just a matter of time before the league takes notice of Fleury’s solid play.

It wasn’t just the defense that contributed though.  The Pittsburgh powerplay has been as sharp as I’ve seen them in the last couple of seasons.  The passing at times is quicker than the eye can even follow.  Several times in the last few games they have converted in ways that make me just say “wow”.  With Crosby not far from a return, the sky might really be the limit for this up and coming unit.

What might be most impressive though is the little things for the NHL points leading Penguins.  You know, the hustle plays.  Things like winning their battles on the boards, clearing rebounds from in front of Fleury, or even their improved faceoff success without their best in the circle (Crosby).  It’s those small things that mostly go unnoticed that have really been a huge different maker so far, and its that sort of play which will keep this team on the path to success in 2011.

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