Answering Critics: Staal/Fleury Take Next Step for Penguins

Marc-Andre Fleury (Flickr/wstera)

PITTSBURGH-The Pittsburgh Penguins completed a sweep of a home and home series against the New York Islanders Thursday night at the Consol Energy Center. After trailing 2-0 early in the 3rd period, the Penguins stormed back with goals by Chris Kunitz and James Neal to tie the contest at 2-2. Evgeni Malkin buried a quick nifty forehand under Rick Dipietro in the shootout to grab the extra point.

The Penguins have won five straight games. They are 8-2-2 on the season and lead the NHL with 18 points. Despite the most points in the league, the Penguins have done this without their two franchise players for the majority of the season.

Evgeni Malkin has only dressed for 5 out of 12 games this year while the Pens are anxiously awaiting the return of Sidney Crosby. The Pens captain has not played all season long recovering from his well-known concussion symptoms.

Many have contributed the Pens success to Kris Letang and James Neal. Letang is among the league leaders in points for defenseman and leads the team in power play points. Neal is tied for the league lead with Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs with 9 goals.

Will a Norris Trophy be in Kris Letang's future? (Flickr/Dan4th)

While Letang and Neal have been intricate pieces in the Pens success, the Penguins would be nowhere without the stellar play of Jordan Staal and Marc-Andre Fleury. These two players have been the heart and soul of the team since the beginning of the year.

The object is to win as many games as possible throughout the year, and unlike the beginning of last season, Fleury is on fire right now. He has never played better in his career. Fleury started last season 1-6 and couldn’t stay between the pipes to finish a game.

This season, Fleury has been unbeatable in net. The Flower earned his first shutout of the season Tuesday night against the Islanders. Fleury would have two shutouts if it weren’t for a late 3rd period goal by the Montreal Canadiens on October 20th.

Fleury is 8th in save percentage at .934, and most of the goaltenders ahead of Fleury are not playing on a consistent basis. He has faced the 3rd most shots of any goaltender in the NHL to start this young season. Even with the up-tempo game that Dan Bylsma stresses, the Flower is still only giving up 1.86 goals a game. Fleury also shares the most wins this season with Kari Lehtonen of the Dallas Stars.

Wins is what it is all about and Fleury has been sensational. Not only has Fleury been getting it done during regulation, but he also stopped all three shootout attempts against the Islanders Thursday night, including John Tavares. Fleury winning shootouts is nothing new. He excelled in shootouts all of last year. Fleury only surrendered six goals in 38 shootout attempts 2010-2011 season.

Jordan Staal Pittsburgh PenguinsThe other unsung hero who takes a lot of heat on a consistent basis is Jordan Staal. He has been a force this year. Staal has seemed to finally quiet his critics. People have always been able to criticize Staal for his lack of scoring. Staal hasn’t even come close to surpassing his career high in goals when he scored 29 goals in his rookie season for the Penguins.

This season, there is nothing in Staal’s play to criticize. He has been superb lately. Staal not only has the responsibility to shut down the opposing team’s top-scoring line, but he is also the top penalty killer on the Penguins roster. All of these responsibilities aside, Staal has been burying pucks all season.

Staal is 2nd on the Pens with six goals. He has 3
goals in his last three games and had a goal called off Thursday night against the Islanders that was a very questionable call. Staal’s goal scoring is huge in the absence of Crosby.

Not only has he been producing, but he is a +3 this season while playing against some of the most feared scorers in the league such as Ilya Kovalchuk, the Sedin twins and Alex Ovechkin.

Even if Staal doesn’t keep up his scoring output, the Pens should have continued success. He fits better with the Penguins than he would with any other team in the NHL. Malkin and Crosby are the two who are paid the most dollars to acquire points. A 3rd line shut down center, as is Staal’s role on the team, is what the Pens need most out of Staal. His scoring production is a bonus and brings the Penguins to another level.

Staal has racked up his share of points this year. He has 9 points in 12 games. He has been on a hot steak as of late. The biggest time to worry is when Staal is not creating scoring chances. He certainly has finished and created plenty of scoring opportunities at the start of this season. He is playing the best hockey of his career at both ends of the ice.