Originally posted on Bleed Black & Gold  |  Last updated 1/31/12

Now that I have my mostly unbiased NHL talk out of the way, I can dive into what we can expect from the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Things have improved on the injury front but several key pieces are still on the shelf for an extended period time.  Luckily Evgeni Malkin and company have come to the rescue and at least for the moment, saved the Penguins from sinking into despair.

Before I get into what we can expect for the rest of the season, I’d like to give some people a pat on the back for playing a solid first half.

First to get one is obviously Evgeni Malkin for leading this team back from the dead a few weeks back.  He’s been a huge difference maker.  Second to get one is James Neal who has really impressed me thus far.  Whether he is actually overachieving  is still unknown.  He is a young talent and is still improving, but this years’ success is driving up his price tag in free agency so he might not be a Penguin for too much longer unfortunately.  My last pat on the back goes to Marc-Andre Fleury.  He has played solid and that really is the best word for it.  This is probably his most consistent season to date.  He still makes me nervous handling the puck outside the net and he is still suspect to giving up the somewhat ugly goal early in games, but he has improved on both aspects and that’s all you can really ask from your goalie.  Especially if he is already one of the top ones in the NHL.

Moving forward, the Penguins will still have to fight the injury bug, but they have already proven that they are capable of doing so.  It’s still a worry though when you are missing players like Staal and Crosby.  It is nice to see Letang back in the lineup though after missing a couple months with that concussion.  He has made quite the impact since his return and with him anchoring the defense, I have renewed confidence in our blueliners.

But is he enough to push the Pens over the top?

I’m not so sure.  The Penguins have shown the guts and grit they are capable of playing with but I’m not sure that all the guts in the world can overcome missing a talent like Crosby.  To be honest I still think that anything other than a Stanley Cup is a disappointment anymore in Pittsburgh, but without Crosby I think they really only have a punchers chance against the NHL’s best.  Sure they will be a playoff team, and are perhaps even a top 5 team in the NHL, but teams like Boston and Detroit are built to give teams like Pittsburgh problems.  Crosby would be an essential piece to pushing the Pens over the top and giving them a realistic chance at making a Cup run.

Am I saying they can’t do it as is?  No, not at all.  Like I said, they can compete with anyone.  I’m just saying they aren’t an odds on favorite without Crosby.  And frankly, they are still probably a coin flip with teams like Detroit and Boston even with a healthy squad.  The beauty of the NHL though is that there is parity.  Any team can beat any other team on any day.  A team can take a 4 goal victory away from Detroit one day and then turn around and get spanked by Columbus at home the next.  That’s just how the NHL is.  Consistency is key to make the playoffs, but once you are there, anything goes.  The difference in a series can seriously be 1 lucky bounce of the puck.  That’s all it can take, just 1 lucky bounce.  Basically what I am saying is that Pittsburgh will more than likely reach the post season, and once they are there they are just as capable as any other team to win it.

You can always improve your chances though and for the Pens to do that, 3 things have to happen:

1)  Malkin and Neal can’t cool off.  If they do, the offense as a whole will shut down.

2)  They need to get healthy.  If this team is healthy, I wouldn’t take another roster out there.  Crosby will make the difference.  Whether he returns or not will be the deciding factor.

3)  Hot goalies steal games.  Fleury needs to peak at the right time because teams with hot goaltenders win in the playoffs.  Remember when Montreal bounced both Pittsburgh and Washington out of the Playoffs from the 8 seed?  I do.  Both those series were won by a hot goalie.

So there you have it, a quick wrap up of the first half and what to look for in the second.  It should be a fun and exciting stretch run in the Atlantic Division.  I expect a lot of fireworks between Philly, Pittsburgh and New York as we approach the finish, so be sure to keep an eye on the Pens and check back with us at BB&G for all your Penguins analysis.

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