Originally posted on isportsweb.com  |  Last updated 12/30/13
One of the best scoring unit’s right now in hockey. Pittsburgh is halfway through the 2013-2014 NHL season now. Tomorrow, Tuesday Dec. 31st is New Years Eve and Pittsburgh ends 2013 with divisional foe New Jersey Devils in New Jersey.  Pittsburgh hopes to end 2013 with a victory that would sure bring joy to the city of Pittsburgh and into the locker room. Pittsburgh is one of the top teams in the east right now with 59 points and is 9-1-0 in their last 10 games.  Two points out of overall best in the NHL with 61 points (currently held by Chicago and Anaheim) Over the course of the year they’ve overcome a lot with injuries and to be this far in the season with the injuries they’ve had is beyond a miracle.  They’ve been with and without players the entire season so far.  Players have stepped up into positions on the team to help bring the penguins this far. Pittsburgh’s New Year’s Resolution should be to stay healthy and stick to what works. Some takeaways so far this season can be the depth of the defense.  In previous years, there has not been this much depth on the Penguins roster.  As I mentioned in a previous article. The main grip among fans when the Pittsburgh has had promising years like this one has been the defensive breakdown in the playoffs.  This season I’ve not seen a defense breakdown so far, in fact, I’ve seen a lot of improvement in the defense especially from Matt Niskanen. Matt Niskanen has proven has a true leader on the team with the absence of the top-4 defensemen Niskanen earlier in the year was potentially on the chopping block from the team and could have been a tradable item early in the season.  However, Niskanen has been the glue that has kept the defensive unit from collapsing and as brought along 18-year-old Olli Maatta.  Maatta has certainly come into his own recently.  Maatta has looked more like a 10-year NHL veteran with his calming demeanor and hockey smarts than a 19-year-old rookie that has played in only 41 career games. Now that we are at the halfway mark of the season, Pittsburgh will see players coming back from injury.  Despite losing winger Pascal Dupuis to a possible torn ACL.  Center Evgeni Malkin has been cleared to practice we will hopefully him come back into the line up.  Pittsburgh has already welcomed winger Tanner Glass and defender Rob Scuderi back into the line up. In addition, Pittsburgh has seen a healthy and incredible Sidney Crosby who has been lighting it up in both the goal and assist categories.  Crosby halfway through the season is leading the NHL with 58 points. Crosby has 22 goals and 36 assists.  Crosby has had the help of his linemate winger Chris Kunitz. Kunitz’s 21 goals are only one behind Crosby’s 22 for the team lead. He also places second on the team in points with 42. He’s been an integral part of the NHL’s No. 1 ranked power play by chipping in a team-best 10 man-advantage goals. And when it comes to the little things, such as defensive responsibilities, just take a look at Kunitz’s NHL-best (tied) plus-21 rating.  Kunitz is currently attempting to make the 2014 Winter Olympics roster for Team Canada.  Team Canada head coach Mike Babcock will certainly have to think about who should be paired with Crosby in the Winter Olympics in February. After Kunitz and Crosby, winger James Neal,center Evgeni Malkin , and center Brandon Sutter also have had impressive seasons thus far. Pittsburgh fans can certianly see a difference in the man between the pipes, Marc-Andre Fleury.  When goalie Tomas Vokoun announced that he would possibly be out for the year with a blood clot in his leg, Fleury understood his role with the team would have to be dynamic and he would have to step up in more than one way possible by winning. Will Crosby sweep the awards at the end of the season? Now once, everyone becomes healthy (looking at you Kris Letang, Paul Martin, and Beau Bennett).  I will be curious to see what head coach Dan Bylsma will do with the lines.  I will want to see who he keeps where. As we saw last night in Columbus, the line of Kunitz-Crosby-Neal worked out in James Neal’s favor.  But would that line stay hot? Maybe not. In other news, the play of defender Olli Maatta has lacked in the past few games.  Maatta has turned over the puck and has looked a bit sloppy.  On Monday Dec. 30, Head Coach Bylsma said “His play hasn’t been as strong in the last couple (of games),” Bylsma said. “When his play is good, he’s been worked with, coached and looked at video. That will certainly happen through this stretch as well. Now we’re progressing back to having a full set of defensemen with Simon Despres sitting out last night. As I just mentioned, it will be interesting to see who Bylsma keeps on the defensive front.  In my opinion, I think you have to keep Maatta in the line up.  He’s been a solid addition to the defensive front.  I think you need to let Maatta grow even if he’s on the third line.  Have him rotate in and out a few games if you need to. We will see what happens in the second half of the season.  Have a Happy New Year!

This article first appeared on isportsweb.com and was syndicated with permission.

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