At the end of each quarter in school you’re handed a report card. Your grades for math, science and history can get you grounded for a month or get you free pizza at Chuck E. Cheese. For the Pittsburgh Penguins the first quarter of the season is over and it’s been a weird one. They’ve played flat at stretches and brilliant at others. The power play was anemic but is finally finding its way. They’re not getting straight A’s but they certainly aren’t failing.
Plenty of people are clambering for a big trade or the coach’s head. This is mostly because they have preconceived notions about how scoring should work or how this particular team should look. However, there’s no reason to make a change just a quarter of the way in unless you’re failing. And at 12-8 in the stacked Metropolitan Division, the Penguins sit third and certainly aren’t failing. Only three teams in the entire Eastern Conference have won more games than the Penguins. In fact I don’t want to talk about what’s wrong with this team at all. No, at this quarter mark I want to talk about the two biggest successes of this team that no one seems talking about.
1. Evgeni Malkin
Evgeni Malkin has been centering Phil Kessel and David Perron since October 28th. In that time, they’ve been the team’s best line on the ice and Malkin has been the team’s best player. When the team had their flattest performance, a 4-0 loss to the New Jersey Devils, 71 called them all out on it and then followed his own words and “look(ed) in the mirror.” The Russian center had possibly the most beautiful goal of the young season against the Minnesota Wild the following game and notched his first four point night since the 2013-2014 season on November 17th.
Coming into the year, all eyes were on Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel. Instead, Malkin has reminded everyone that he’s one of the best in the world, too. The 29 year-old Russian is leading the team in points quietly (7-10-17) while everyone bemoans Crosby’s lack of production. Not to mention he’s playing all 200 feet out there. Some of Malkin’s best plays haven’t even been in the offensive zone this year. He’s cutting off passes and sending the puck back up ice.
2. Lovejoy-Dumoulin defense pairing
The defense has been in a state of flux. This will continue to be the case for most of the rest of this season unless a major trade is made. Olli Maatta continues to have the kind of luck only a budding defensive star for the Penguins seems to get and will be out until around Christmas. This defense is very much in transition as players like Martin move on and ones like Maatta take their place. As such, it will continue to change as this season and the next few continue.
The one pairing that’s been really truly wonderful, though, is the Brian Dumoulin and Ben Lovejoy pairing. There aren’t enough good adjectives to describe the way these two have played together at points honestly. Lovejoy-Dumoulin are getting about 15-16 minutes of even strength time together per game. This duo has been on the ice for less goals against than any other defensive unit on the squad and they’re only improving. Lovejoy has played the most minutes on the defensive unit shorthanded (55:18).
This is especially important when you consider what we knew heading into the season, which was surprisingly little. Dumoulin had looked competent in limited time last season and Lovejoy had been misused due to injury, so how either would shake out was a mystery. Dumoulin’s increased comfort at the NHL level has seen him jumping into plays more recently and he’s been successful. They communicate well and play off of each other’s strengths.
Sure, the first quarter was a bit mixed with a few clunking losses and a few eked out wins. The team still needs to work on closing games out better as a whole along with a list of other things, including scoring more when possible. But we’re a quarter of the way in and only five teams are sitting on a better record and each week there are strides to improve. In a season that’s a marathon, not a sprint, that’s really not all that bad.