By Matt Popchock
Lost in the fact that last Friday did not mark the return of Sidney Crosby is the fact that the game, a hard-earned win by the Penguins in Alex Goligoski's homecoming, featured two damn good hockey teams.
Lost in the fact that Sid is still not back four nights after the Pens vanquished the surprising Stars is the fact that another Western Conference opponent, the fledgling Colorado Avalanche, await the hosts at CONSOL Energy Center--a situation that suddenly favors the Penguins.
In years past, the West would often be a little too wild for the Pens' comfort. Historically this team has played, at best, above average hockey against clubs on the other side of the Mississippi, the Stanley Cup Finals not withstanding. But part of the impressive success of the Crosby-less Penguins is the way they have gradually figured out how to hang with those outside their conference.
Entering Tuesday's contest the Penguins have gone 5-0-2 against Western Conference opponents. The Pens (10-4-3) share the best record in the East with the hated Flyers, thanks to Philadelphia's win in Carolina Monday night, but half their wins, and essentially, half their points, have come against the West. That's more than any other team in the Eastern Conference has earned versus inter-conference competition.
That number includes games like Friday's, and the thrilling season-opening victory in Vancouver, and it also includes shootout losses against Edmonton and San Jose in which third-period leads were squandered.
It also includes 17 total goals allowed in those outings. That's less than half the Penguins' total for this young 2011-12 season.
It also includes a very successful western Canada fling to begin the season--a neck of the woods not always friendly to Flightless Birds--that has set the tone for an inspired start by the Penguins in the absence of their captain.
They played a league-high 13 games in October, four of them against Western Conference teams. This is finally a well-rested hockey team, but still, three of their first four November contests have featured Western foes as well. Late in the season, when playoff races heat up, those "free" points--games in which the other team can't gain meaningful ground on you in the standings--make a difference.
How does one become a Western warrior? It takes one to know one.
The Pens have gone on a 7-2-1 tear in their last ten overall, and two of their hottest players in that span have been James Neal and Chris Kunitz, each of whom has spent significant time in places quite removed from the Steel City.
No one could have penned a better script for Neal, an outcast of the resurgent post-Modano Stars, who scored his team-best tenth and 11th goals of the campaign against his old mates to propel the Pens past Dallas last weekend--on 11-11-11. Neal leads the Pens with 17 points, and those 11 tallies put him one off Phil Kessel's league lead.
Kunitz, who cut his hockey teeth (now there's an oxymoron) in Anaheim, has pumped in four goals and six points over his last six games, including the game-tying score in Saturday's loss to the Hurricanes. In addition, two goals involving him and his improved net-front presence were disallowed Friday, at least one of which seemed to be a questionable call.
Meanwhile, guys like Matt Cooke, Steve Sullivan, and Matt Niskanen, also Western Conference veterans, are skating confidently and finding ways to contribute.
The Penguins also fared well against Western Conference teams last season. With Crosby missing half the action, the Pens went 11-4-3, including 5-2-2 after the Winter Apocalypse--I mean, Classic. Prior to the '09 Cup run, the Pens were 10-6-2 against the West in regular season play.
Never mind the Avalanche's league-best 6-2-1 road record. If I'm looking at trends, I like the way the Pens have raised their play against Colorado's peers...and they haven't even played a single game against the Central Division. The scary thing for the rest of the NHL is, those games, in all probability, will come after Sid's return.
At the dawn of a new decade, the NHL is evolving again, and with realignment around the corner, the Penguins may see some of those teams more often than in recent history in upcoming seasons.
Then again, depending on what the Board of Governors decides, they might not.
Let's not make any snap decisions here, boys...
Keep listening to SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan for more Penguins coverage, and also be sure to check out Casey Shea's "Shea-ved Ice" blog.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)
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