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Halfway Home: Pittsburgh Penguins Mid-Season Awards & Duds



Penguins Game vs. Minnesota Wild Sidney Crosby
PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 20: Pittsburgh Penguins Center Sidney Crosby (87) reacts after Pittsburgh Penguins Right Wing Bryan Rust (17) (not pictured) scored a goal past Minnesota Wild Goalie Devan Dubnyk (40) during the third period in the NHL game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Minnesota Wild on December 20, 2018, at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, PA. (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)

The NHL season can seem like a mountain. At times the mountain feels like climbing Everest but at the halfway point, to look back, it seems like a flash. The November crash and the October surge are distant memories as the Pittsburgh Penguins focus rests squarely on the next six months. Sunday will be Game 42 and the official beginning of the second half of the season, even if the All-Star game isn’t for a few weeks. And so it is time to dish the Penguins mid-season awards and duds.

Leave your own in the comments section below.

MVP: Sidney Patrick Crosby

Crosby has been on rails since the first puck dropped in October. Jake Guentzel, who is maturing, has helped Crosby’s numbers. Recall the metric ton of wasted chances from Crosby wingers last season, compared the relative lack of frustration in that regard, this season.

Crosby is on pace for 100 points. He has 50 points (19g, 31a) in 41 team games and 37 games played. As other Penguins stars have scuffled and stumbled, Crosby has charged forward. If not for the incredible pace set by Tampa Bay winger Nikita Kucherov and Colorado linemates Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, who are each over 60 points scored, Crosby would be in the middle of the Art Ross conversation.

Crosby also shuts down the opposition’s top line on most nights, though the Penguins have assigned Matt Cullen and linemates to help out occasionally.

2nd place: Casey DeSmith

If that choice looks odd, simply ask the question–Where would the Penguins season be if DeSmith had not been stellar and sometimes spectacular? This could have been a lost season, very quickly. DeSmith didn’t just hold the fort, he won the battles and posted a save percentage always over .920.

Biggest Thud: Derick Brassard

Brassard is one of the most talented, successful players on the Penguins roster. The first half? One to forget. Recently, Brassard and Phil Kessel are efforting to make the third line go. However, it’s still stuck in neutral. Brassard has 12 points (6g, 6a) in 32 games. A 30-point pace is not becoming a player of his talent.

While Kessel has been able to gobble up power-play points, Brassard has been dry. He’s too good to be this much of a non-factor.

2nd place: Daniel Sprong

The Penguins coaches gave Sprong every opportunity in training camp and preseason. He can hint that he didn’t get a shot. Fans can howl that he didn’t get a shot. He got a shot.

And his fourth line work was so uneven that it submarined the entire line. Since Sprong’s departure, the fourth line has become the Penguins shutdown line which occasionally guards the opposition’s top line and is contributing offense. It’s no longer the Penguins shutdown line which stifles their own offense.

Biggest Surprise: Kris Letang

The surprise isn’t that Letang is playing well. A quick look in training camp was all that was needed to see Letang was much healthier than last season. The surprise is how good his overall game has been.

We praised it last night in the PHN Extra Report Card. He’s making good reads, simple plays and staying within the game instead of trying to do too much.

Norris Trophy nomination. Perhaps he won’t beat Mark Giordano, who is also having a year in Calgary, but Letang is worthy to be a finalist.

Worst Fan Take: Matt Cullen is Too Old

That was Cullen, 42, guarding Mark Schiefele, Friday night. Just as Cullen has effectively guarded top lines of Washington, Toronto, Carolina…and more. Cullen has 10 points in 30 games, which puts him on a 25-point pace which is just about even with the high-flying 32-point he posted during the Penguins back-to-back Stanley Cup runs.

Except now Cullen is also defending All-Star players.

Best Fan Take: Give Phil Time

Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin essentially imploded together. Both of their games went to hell and back. Kessel needed a little kick in the pants, which head coach Mike Sullivan provided on Dec. 22. Since, Kessel has been the good Phil. His recent nine-points in three games outburst set everything right.

His play over the past few games at 5v5 has shown effort and “want-to,” even as he and Derick Brassard struggle to figure it out.

Worst PHN Take: Wondering Aloud if Kessel’s Time was Up in Pittsburgh

Oh, Kessel earned a few spanks for his play in December. The Penguins, however, are married to Phil Kessel. Reports earlier this season–not from PHN–indicated the Penguins dipped a toe in the Kessel trade waters. But Phil Kessel is a Penguin and probably will be for life.

Concerning hot-takes, we’re not touching the Jack Johnson stuff. We’re quite comfortable in our analysis of the situation and signing, even as the tribe has spoken and doesn’t appear much willing to amend original takes. So, we’ll just write–we’ve seen more good from Johnson.

Best Story: Bryan Rust

Cmon, one goal in the first 29 games, then eight goals in six games. It was fun to see a genuinely good guy like Rust go bonkers on the scoring sheet. He’s doing his job on the Crosby line.

2nd place: Shelly Anderson’s story on the potential of a team puppy

You can read it here if you missed it on New Year’s Day.

Emerging: Matt Murray

Murray has won seven straight and won the last three with vintage stellar play. Murray’s rebound from over 12 months of struggles and adversity could define the Penguins season. It’s an emerging story.


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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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3 years ago

Dan, I love how you think just because you say it, it is true. You’ve been beating this Daniel Sprong drum for a couple of years now. He’s gone (I’m sure you’re loving that) and you’re still wrong. Daniel Sprong was NOT given a fair opportunity in Pittsburgh. There, I said it so it must be true!

3 years ago
Reply to  Rick

Um, the facts say he was given ample opportunity and failed. He was not NHL-caliber in the Pens’ org. Clearly the owners, GM and head coach felt the same. And I’ll give that much more weight than a couple dozen misguided and angry fans on the Internet. Maybe he will succeed in Anaheim or elsewhere. I hope he does. But, he’s not the second coming of Crosby. He is a project: a low draft pick that every team in the league passed over with a great shot and a whole lot of question marks.

3 years ago

Rust needs to be put back on the 4th line where he fit quite well. He is not a fit on the first line, but it looks like Aston-Reese is, so why not switch them without wasting any more time? Sullivan wouldn’t put Sprong on the first line because he said he didn’t earn it (and that was hogwash) – but he can’t say Aston-Reese hasn’t earned it!