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Monday, October 21, 2013
Hot Penguins OK with being under the radar

By Scott Burnside



If it is possible to roll to a 7-1 record and boast the NHL’s runaway scoring leader and top netminder without much fanfare, then the Pittsburgh Penguins have managed to do just that.

While much of the early-season attention has been focused on the Colorado Avalanche -- who visit the Eastern Conference-leading Penguins Monday night -- and on stretcher-borne players and supplemental discipline, the Penguins have managed to wreak havoc on opposing teams with workmanlike precision.

The Pens rank first in the conference, second in the NHL, in goals per game at 3.75 and a more than respectable eighth in goals allowed per game, and that number would be even better had rookie netminder Jeff Zatkoff not allowed six in the team’s only loss, which came to the Florida Panthers. The Pens’ power play is second in the league.

Sidney Crosby has scored at least a point in all seven games and with five multipoint games is threatening to run away with the scoring race at a ridiculously early point in the season, with seven goals (tied for the league lead) and 17 points, already five points up on the next players in the field. Marc-Andre Fleury, the Pens’ oft-maligned netminder, is 7-0 and boasts a .930 save percentage and 1.84 GAA.

"But no one wants to talk about that," GM Ray Shero told ESPN.com.

Instead, all discussion about Fleury either harkens back to his poor play in the past couple of playoff years, especially last spring, when he was lifted after Game 5 of the first round and did not start again, or projects to what might happen next spring when the playoffs begin again. The fact of the matter is that if Fleury somehow ran the table and didn’t lose a single regular-season game, the same questions would dog him when the postseason begins next spring. That’s life.

The same might be said for the entire team.

The Penguins were swept in the Eastern Conference finals last season by Boston and somehow managed to score only two goals during that series. Maybe that’s why Crosby’s otherworldly play has not garnered the attention it might otherwise have; given the team’s power outage against the Bruins when it most mattered, there might be a backlash that suggests regular-season heroics are relatively meaningless when it comes to the Penguins.

And while there might be some truth to that, it's worth noting that the Penguins did make it to the final four last spring, their first trip beyond the second round since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009. There is also something to be said for the organizational and individual determination to keep the focus where it needs to be: not on games that might happen in April and May but on games that are for sure happening in October.

"We’re not looking too far down the road here," Shero said.

The fact the Penguins have managed to come out of the gate in such dominating fashion is even more impressive given that top-six winger and Canadian Olympic hopeful James Neal has not played a game because of an upper-body injury. Likewise, Norris Trophy nominee Kris Letang also has been out of the lineup with a knee injury. The absence of those two key players has allowed others, such as rookie Olli Maatta, to shine. It’s believed the Penguins will keep the 22nd overall pick from 2012 beyond the nine-game threshold that starts the clock ticking on his entry-level contract.

Up front, veteran Jussi Jokinen, a healthy scratch at times in the playoffs, has chipped in offense with four goals and two assists and depth players such as Craig Adams and Chuck Kobasew also have been productive.

"So far the team has played pretty well," Shero said.

Letang is close to returning, although Shero said because the team is off after Monday’s game until Friday, there isn’t any rush to bring him back. Neal, however, because of his injury "is a little further away," Shero said.

As for the lack of buzz surrounding his team, Shero is Zen. He recalled when the Penguins, in his first season as GM in 2006-07, were collecting wins and points in spite of preseason predictions that they weren't yet ready, such as the case with Monday’s opponents, the Avs.

"We were that young team," Shero said.

Now, they’re content to let the Avs enjoy the attention.

"We’re fine with that," the GM said.