Sports

Pens' additions to lineup are positive

Although it only began in January, the NHL’s abbreviated season is almost over. The Pittsburgh Penguins are asserting their dominance over the rest of the league while battling through extended injuries to star centers Evgeni Malkin (concussion and upper body) and Sidney Crosby (broken jaw).

These injuries to their main playmakers have not slowed the well-oiled machine that the Pens have become. Wingers Chris Kunitz and James Neal would both be on pace for career seasons if this were actually a full 82-game season. Goalies Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun have played lights out, averaging less than 2.5 goals against combined.

Much of the difference that has pushed the Pens over the edge came after last year’s quick first-round exit at the hands of the rival Philadelphia Flyers. This offseason, the Pens traded third line center Jordan Staal for center Brandon Sutter, a first-round pick, and minor league player Brian Dumoulin.

Even though Staal has a 10-year, $60 million contract, Sutter has so far been outplaying him. Vokoun was also picked up during free agency to help back up Fleury and give him some rest, and as the stats show, it has been a fantastic success.

Even with those successes, the Penguins are still not content with sitting still. In the midst of a perfect month of March, going 15–0–0, the Pens made four major trade deadline deals to further cement the idea that the future is now. Wingers Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla, center Jussi Jokinen, and defenseman Douglas Murray are all short-term additions meant to push the Pens over the edge this year and bring the Cup back to Pittsburgh.

Morrow came to the Penguins from the Dallas Stars, where he served as their top line left winger and captain. For the Pens, he has so far served on their second line, giving them a bit of a scoring boost while Malkin was out. In a larger sense, Morrow allows the Penguins to move around their scoring talent and to give the third line a bit more firepower, with previous wings Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy only scoring 16 and nine points (goals and assists), respectively.

Iginla was the face of the Calgary Flames after he came into the league in 1996, and he served as their captain for nine years. He is a prolific scorer and last season became only the 42nd player in NHL history to score 500 goals in his career, and only the 15th to do it all with one team.

He was supposed to take a backseat scoring role and was slotted to slide into the second line with Malkin and Morrow, but the recent injury to Crosby will force him to try and pick up the scoring slack in Crosby’s absence. Iginla did not come cheap, forcing the Pens to give up two solid offensive prospects in Kenneth Agostino and Ken Hanowski plus a first-round pick in the upcoming draft.

Jokinen was the most recent pickup by the Pens; they acquired him right at the April 3 trade deadline from the Carolina Hurricanes. Jokinen was acquired to fill in for Crosby on the top line after he went down with a broken jaw; it is still uncertain when Crosby will return. He is also the only one of the Penguins’ trade acquisitions signed past this season.

Jokinen will probably only be used for his set-up abilities with Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis, the Penguins’ two leading goal scorers, on his line. He could also be utilized for key faceoffs, since those are a weak point in Malkin’s game.

Jokinen was acquired for cheap because of his large contract. The Hurricanes put him on waivers last week with hopes that a team would sign him and pick up his contract. However, no one bit, so the Pens were able to trade a conditional draft pick and negotiated for Carolina to take on some of his remaining salary.

Murray was perhaps the least celebrated of the Pens’ pickups, coming right on the heels of the news that Morrow was acquired. Murray is a solid second-line defenseman who plays physically, but does not have much offensive ability.

He will be a key piece in the Pittsburgh defense down the stretch as he helps bolster an aging and tiring defense that has so far played excellently, but is beginning to show signs of wear and tear. The price for Murray was a bit steep, costing Pittsburgh a 2013 second-round pick and a conditional 2014 second-round pick.

All of these recent moves have reinforced the Penguins’ desire to win, regardless of injuries the hockey gods may throw in their way. They are marching toward the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, but the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins are still very good and could cause the Pens some trouble if they meet in the playoffs.

With less than 10 games remaining in this shortened schedule, it looks like the Penguins will probably be facing one of the three New York-area teams in the first round of the playoffs. The New York Rangers, New York Islanders, and New Jersey Devils occupy the 7–9 spots respectively with 40, 40, and 39 points (compared to the Pens’ 58). Every win is worth two points, so these bottom seeds are going to shuffle around some more before all is said and done.

The nice thing for the Penguins, though, is that they will be able to outscore any team they face with or without Crosby. As long as Fleury and Vokoun continue playing the role of brick wall in net, the Penguins shouldn’t face much of a challenge until the later rounds.

The key for the Penguins is to make sure they keep up the momentum going into the playoffs and keep their eye on the ultimate prize.

It may seem easy for the Pens to get cocky and overconfident, given the bashing they have been giving other teams night in and night out. But fans should not be too concerned — with four years since their last title win and several new hungry veterans who have never won in their storied careers (including Morrow and Iginla), these Penguins have plenty to keep fighting for.