Saying that the Penguins started off the season slowly might be the understatement of the century. Or, at least the understatement of the very young 2015-16 season. Sidney Crosby has only recorded points in two games and while both were multi-point efforts, it’s still concerning. The Penguins are being exposed defensively but still boast a 7-4-0 record after winning five of their last six. What kept this team afloat so far?
A few players, should I say, very key players, stepped up in a big way throughout October and carried this team on their backs. No one did so more than my number one star for the month. The Penguins are currently bottom-five in the NHL ranks for goals-for per game and own the sixth worst shots-against per game. While there’s clearly a lot of improvement needed, the individuals below simply need to keep on keeping on.
3rd Star: Phil Kessel
Kessel was brought to Pittsburgh to score goals. It’s as simple as that and so far, he’s delivering. Kessel netted four goals and added two assists in 11 games-played in October, which puts him on pace for roughly 30 goals through an 82-game season. But, his recent uptick in production since moving to Evgeni Malkin’s line could mean even better results going forward. He’s also right on pace with his career average for shooting percentage, which means he isn’t riding an unsustainable number through the early weeks of the season.
There were a lot of questions about where he would fit within the Penguins’ lineup. Would he be successful alongside Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin? Where will he play on the power play? After the experiment of Kessel and Crosby playing together was less than stellar, he was moved to Malkin’s line and has already began building chemistry.
Speaking of his chemistry with Malkin…
2nd Star: Evgeni Malkin
Malkin leads all Penguins with ten points through 11 games-played. He’s a rare exception to the slow start this team exhibited, as he looks possessed night-in and night-out. If there was ever any real concern about him being unhappy in Pittsburgh or disconnected from the coaching staff, it’s safe to say he has put that chatter to rest.
Malkin has also been a rare bright spot on the Penguins’ struggling power play with two goals, which accounts for 50-percent of Pittsburgh’s power play tallies. It’s always encouraging to see a player of his magnitude scoring different types of goals with the man-advantage. His first was a one-timer from the slot during four-on-three play in overtime. His second, though, came when Malkin cycled down low near the goal line and generated traffic around the crease.
If the Pittsburgh Penguins start clicking throughout the lineup, meaning Crosby and company get rolling as well, everyone will finally get to see the very potent offense we expected. Of course, it seems as if the two superstars can never hit that next level simultaneously, so nothing is guaranteed.
1st Star: Marc-Andre Fleury
This probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone, as Fleury has been nothing short of brilliant so far this season. Considering this team’s defensive struggles and inability to score, it isn’t far-fetched to wonder if they’d be winless if it weren’t for Fleury’s play between the posts.
Fleury boasted a 1.71 goals-against average and .942 save-percentage. Throughout that time frame, the Penguins ranked in the bottom-five league-wide for shots-against per game. He also recorded two shutouts. I recently wrote about Fleury’s performance for the Pittsburgh Penguins but even after that article, he continued to shine even more.
When the NHL released their three stars for October, they included Carey Price among them but failed to acknowledge Fleury’s spectacular start. I won’t do the same here. Hands down, Fleury was arguably the NHL MVP for the month of October and the Penguins would have been hard pressed to even finish the month at .500 without him.
Pittsburgh Penguins Honorable Mentions
Matt Cullen has been a sight for sore eyes on the Penguins’ fourth line so far. He has been a model of consistency and looked even better when Eric Fehr re-joined the team this past Saturday. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Beau Bennett’s strong start to the season. He missed time due to injury yet again, which he somehow suffered during a goal celebration but outside of that he has been extremely impressive. If he can stay healthy and continue to develop throughout the year, the Penguins may finally get the winger they had hoped for since drafting him in the first round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.