There has been no other team in recent memory that has gone through such dramatic health scares in one year as the Pittsburgh Penguins. In January defenseman Kris Letang suffered a stroke and missed two months of playing time, returning just in time for the Penguins first round playoff series against Columbus. In February goalie Tomas Vokoun was medically cleared to play after a blood clot that nearly cost him his life in September 2013 was discovered and dissolved. Then at the end of October the Pens announced that young defenseman Olli Matta was to undergo surgery for a tumor in his thyroid gland, but was expected to fully recover. Twenty three days later another bomb dropped. The Pens announced that their hard fighting forward, Pascal Dupuis, who already had six goals and eleven points in just sixteen games this season, will be sidelined for six months with a blood clot in his lung.
A team is like a family. For some their teammates are the closest family that they have for nearly eight months of the year. For just one of these scares to hit a family in one year would be very dramatic, this family got hit with four in fifteen months. However, as the Penguins family rests on Thanksgiving and reflects back on a year full of crisis here are some things that I am sure they will be thankful for.
The Penguins added some new talent to the team this off-season and while the loss of some hometown favorites such as James Neal, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik might have dampened some spirits at the time, these new guys are looking good early. Forwards Patric Hornqvist, Nick Spaling, Steve Downie and Blake Comeau have logged a combined 21 goals, 30 assists, 51 points and a combined +/- of +18. Defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, who some critics have argued got off to a slow start, not only leads the team with a +/- of +13 (tied for third in the NHL), but also has 6 assists and each game logs in the top three in TOI. Lastly, goalie Thomas Greiss has proven to be a very reliant backup for Marc-Andre Fleury by notching 2 wins, a 2.46 GAA and a .924 SV%. On the surface this might not appear to be spectacular, but his GAA is lower than that of Ryan Miller, Hendrik Lundqvist and Cory Schneider and his SV% would be the seventh highest in the league, right behind Fleury at sixth. More importantly, the Penguins trust him to face off against the likes of Detroit and the Islanders and in his two wins, against Toronto and Minnesota, he saved 63 of 65, logging a .969 SV%. (I’ll tell you next week which of these players is the most significant addition so far this year and I’ll let you know now, it’s not who you think it is)
New Coach and Chemistry
Mike Johnston replaced the fired Dan Bylmsa in June and when a change like this happens there are always concerns that a new coach, a new philosophy and a new plan might bring about a slow start to the season. This has not been the case. Johnston has the Pens playing to their fullest potential almost every night and even with the constant shifting of the lines, due partly to health issues, the Penguins have the highest GF/G AVG at 3.5 and they are the top-ranked PP team in the league scoring 33.3% of the time. However, they are not just lightning on offense, but have a thundering defense. The Penguins have the fourth ranked PK percentage in the NHL, the fourth highest fight per game average and they have out hit their opponents in all but six games this season. Johnston has the Penguins set to let the league know that they play quick and stand tall.
Friendly Upcoming Schedule and Pittsburgh
The Penguins can also be very thankful for their upcoming schedule. Of their final seventeen games to close out the year 2014 the Penguins play eleven of them at Consol Energy Center. For the other six games they don’t even leave the Eastern Time Zone. Also, thirteen of those seventeen games are against teams currently ranked in the bottom half of their conferences. (Check back for my breakdown of what we’ll learn about the Penguins in December). This brings us to the last major thing that the Penguins will be thankful for and that is the city of Pittsburgh. It should not be forgotten that just seven years ago the Penguins had one foot out the door on their way to Kansas City. However, since the 2007-2008 season the Penguins have been in the top eight of the attendance percentage and the support from the fans couldn’t be stronger than it is today. The Pens fans were actually just named “NHL’s Best” by Forbes for the third straight year on Tuesday. So, this Thanksgiving as you and your family sit back and reflect on your reasons to be thankful this year, the Penguins family will do the same. And despite the terrible health scares they have gone through in the last fifteen months they, like all of us, will find plenty of reasons to be thankful, and I believe that this list is a good place to start. Happy Thanksgiving!