December is typically where teams develop their identity.
Florida Panthers (11-14-6, 28 pts.) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (21-10-1, 43 pts.)
October is for shaking off the rust of the offseason, November is where players begin to get comfortable and find their groove, and when December hits, it’s time to find out who’s for real and who’s not.
So far, the Penguins have established their identity as a pretty complete team. They’re right on pace with the 1992-93 Penguins, which was the best regular season team in franchise history, displaying scoring strength, stout defense and toughness throughout the roster.
“I think that we’ve worked on our identity the last 15 games a lot,” Matt Cooke said. “I think that teams underestimate how physical our team is. That’s probably a good thing for us. We realize where we have to play to be successful. If we make the commitment to play there then on most nights we’re giving ourselves the best chance to win.”
Pittsburgh will become even more complete when Chris Kunitz returns to the lineup — a move that is nearing. He will be the final player to return from injury and give the Penguins their starting lineup back in full.
“We’re missing Kunitz right now, obviously he’s a big part of the team,” Pascal Dupuis said. “As soon as we get him back, pretty much everyone’s going to be in the lineup. The identity of the team’s gonna be back. Pretty much all the guys that played last year in the Stanley Cup Finals — a couple missing pieces here and there — but we feel pretty confident in our group right now.”
As a group, the Penguins appear strong in most areas. They’re fourth in the National Hockey League in goals scored (102), featuring a wealth of scoring depth. Sidney Crosby’s production has been well-documented so far this year (20 goals, 17 assists), but he is joined by others who have been putting the puck in the net — Mike Rupp (9 goals), Evgeni Malkin (8), Jordan Staal (8), Pascal Dupuis (8), Bill Guerin (7).
It’s not just offense either. Defensively, Pittsburgh has been hammered worst by injuries, yet the team survived rather well with the help of Nate Guenin, Ben Lovejoy and Deryk Engelland. Now the entire blue line is back and the original pairings that started the season will be reunited tonight against Florida.
In goal, Marc-Andre Fleury has just been winning games. He’s currently second in the league with 18 wins.
“Our mentality is just to stick to our game no matter what the score is.” Crosby said.
And they will tonight at home against Florida. The Panthers are suffering through their own injury problems, playing without a top scorer in David Booth. He only played three games this season before suffering a concussion, taking away a 30-goal scorer from last year.
Nick Tarnasky (orbital bone), Cory Stillman (knee) and Kenndal McArdle (upper body) are also out tonight, while Gregory Campbell (upper body) and Dominic Moore (lower body) are day-to-day and could potentially play.
Florida presents yet another opportunity for the Penguins to spark their power play — one of the few weaknesses they have displayed on a consistent basis. The Panthers are 29th in penalty killing at a rate of just 76.4 percent.
They’ve also allowed 108 goals this season (fourth worst in the NHL).
Former Penguin Hal Gill, who was in Pittsburgh long enough to see the Penguins special teams go in and out of slumps, said he wouldn’t be surprised if the power play turns its fortunes around very soon.
“It’s always the next game [that matters],” Gill said when asked about the Penguins’ power play issues. “You look at the talent they have, they’re going to come out of it at some point.”
Chris | PPT