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Steigerwald: It’s Been a Strange First Half in the NHL



Marc-Andre Fleury
LAS VEGAS, NV - SEPTEMBER 14: Marc-Andre Fleury of the Vegas Golden Knights poses for his official headshot for the 2017-2018 season on September 14, 2017 at the City National Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images)

44 down, 38 to go.

The Penguins gave themselves a nice sendoff to their five-game, mid-season break. Blowing a 3-1 lead at home to the Bruins at home wouldn’t have been a good way to end the first half, but the stars came out in the third period and overtime Sunday night and did a pretty good impression of a  back-to-back Cup winner.

Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessell, and Evgeni Malkin reminded everybody of how nice it is to have three world-class scorers and how ridiculous it can be when they’re on the ice at the same time and playing at the top of their games.

But, it’s been a strange first half in the NHL.

What could be stranger than an expansion team having the second highest point total in the league and the Chicago Blackhawks being in last place in their division?

The Vegas Golden Knights have 60 points and are leading the Pacific Division. Expansion teams just aren’t supposed to be doing this.

The Edmonton Oilers, according to a lot of experts, were supposed to be going to the Stanley Cup Finals. They’re 21 points behind Vegas.

The Penguins aren’t supposed to be barely holding on to the last playoff spot in the east, but that’s where they are, and it’s taken back-to-back wins to get them there.

Only six points separate the second place team in the Metropolitan Division – the Devils, from the last place team – the Flyers. The Capitals are in first, but what good has that ever done them?

Funny how two wins and a bunch of points from the stars can get people to stop talking about the need for a shakeup. There’s still a long way to go and plenty of time for the Penguins to make GM Jim Rutherford’s trigger finger start twitching but he’s probably feeling pretty good about not allowing himself to panic, which he could have done, after getting shutout at home by the Carolina Hurricanes last Thursday.

Crosby and Malkin are starting to creep up the leaderboard. Crosby’s 4 points against the Islanders Friday night moved him from a tie for 36th in scoring to 15th. Three more Sunday night got him to 14th. Crosby has 43 points to Malkin’s 42. You can start laying bets now on a top 10 finish for both and don’t rule out a scoring title out for either of them.

Crosby has looked like he’s struggling for most of the first half but, all of a sudden, he’s only two points behind Alexander Ovechkin and four points behind Connor McDavid.

The Goalies

Matt Murray hasn’t made anybody entirely forget Marc-Andre Fleury with his 2.93 goals against average that ranks him 34th in the league, but, Carey Price, widely considered the best goaltender in the league, is in 33rd with a 2.89.

Fleury, missed a few weeks with a concussion, has only played 12 games, but he’s given up two goals in his last three games and has an absurd GAA of 1.73 and a .945 save percentage.

So, there have been quite a few surprises in the NHL so far and the Penguins, despite their last two games, are one of the unpleasant ones.

That doesn’t surprise me. I expected the Penguins to find it hard to duplicate anything close to the intensity they had to produce for two lengthy playoff runs in 18 months and I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re looking back at that 4-0 loss to Carolina as the kick in the ass that they needed.

Maybe they also needed to have Daniel Sprong up here sooner. He’s been gone from the AHL for a few days now, and he’s still tied for the AHL lead in goals with 18. If you’re one of the worst offensive teams in the league, five-on-five, which the Penguins were, why would you wait so long to bring up one of the best goal scorers in the minor leagues?

What’s the point in having a farm system?

Does Crosby look a little more energized with a finisher playing on his right wing? And did you see Sprong’s second goal against the Islanders? He was in tight on Islanders goalie Jaroslav Halak and managed to lift the puck over Halak‘ s shoulder and under the crossbar in the upper right corner. It was an NHL goal scorer’s goal.

We’ve all heard that the Penguins coaches weren’t sure that Sprong was ready for the NHL. There were questions about his defense and his attitude.

He should never spend another day in Wilkes-Barre or Scranton.

Maybe Mike Sullivan and his staff can spend these five days coming up with some line changes they can keep together longer than a period or two.

The first line should include Sprong, and it should be together long enough for Sprong to learn how to play with Crosby.

It should be an interesting second half.

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John has over 40 years experience doing just about everything you can do in Pittsburgh sports, including work at KDKA (TV and Radio), WTAE, the Tribune-Review and many more. Author of Just Watch The Game. Columnist and opinion writer here and at Pittsburgh Sports Now. You can regularly find John on Twitter and Facebook.

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4 years ago

Great point about Sprong learning to play with Sid. The amount of time they spend on the bench reviewing the play is as valuable as the time on the ice.

4 years ago

Sprong AND Simon. Simon didn’t have Sprong’s numbers but he made things happen with intelligent, aware play, good wheels, soft hands, rushing the net. That 41-87-12 line looks good.