By Matt Popchock
The Pittsburgh Penguins just can't catch a break.
Unless it's a broken knee. Or a broken finger. Or a broken elbow.
Oh well, at least Brooks Orpik's infirmity was "only" a hernia.
Honestly, the only sobering fact about the Pens' 7-2-2 start and early ascension to the top of the Eastern Conference standings is that the injury bug that felled them last season is no longer a "bug." It's a pandemic, one of which they simply can't seem to rid themselves.
Nevertheless, the Penguins continue to methodically break down one opponent after another, having picked up their fourth win in a row on Long Island Tuesday night. Those are the breaks that have captured the attention--and imagination--of the hockey world, and rightfully so.
Take nothing away from the early magic worked by highly-scrutinized forwards James Neal and Jordan Staal. Take nothing away from the "new" Matt Cooke either.
What the Penguins are doing right now is most definitely sustainable until Sid's noggin and Geno's knee stop aching. That's because, in the time that the Two-Headed Monster has been off the ice, their two best players on the ice have been the two between the pipes.
Dan Bylsma made it sound as though Marc-Andre Fleury had to steal Tuesday's 3-0 win over the New York Islanders. I'm fine with that; on some level, he most certainly did.
His 33-save effort and 20th career shutout were a breath of fresh air and a sweet sample of justice served by the hockey gods. Fleury was owed that shutout against the Habs last Thursday, a shutout bid ruined by one unfortunate bounce.
Never mind the fact that it wasn't the first time he's had one of those spoiled within the final ten minutes of regulation--far from it. He just wants to win, period, and right now, all the Flower is doing is blossoming into a Vezina Trophy contender.
That contest against Montreal at CONSOL Energy Center Oct. 20 could have and should have been much more lopsided than the final 3-1 margin in favor of the hosts. Carey Price was great. Marc-Andre Fleury was greater.
The Islanders' offense wasn't great. On multiple occasions, however, it was certainly greater than Pittsburgh's. It didn't matter. Once again, the best player, regardless of allegiance, was the "other" 2-9'er.
The Penguins have opened the season under trying circumstances beyond their list of scratches. This was their league-high 11th game, so room for excuse-making is available, but based on Fleury's leadership by example, it won't be necessary.
His six wins are tied for second-most in the NHL, his GAA has dipped to 1.87, and how's this for perfect irony: his save percentage is 93.7.
(See that, future media employees of America? It pays to read other people's production notes.)
Speaking of leadership by example, those who simply read stats and/or play fantasy hockey religiously know that the best backup goalie in the NHL right now is the Rangers' Marty Biron. He's posted a 0.86 GAA and .968 save percentage.
Those who have been watching these Penguins on a nightly basis, however, know it's Brent Johnson. He's an unassuming teammate who knows what his role is, accepts it, and is fine as long as he fills it to the best of his ability.
He tasted defeat against the Edmonton Oilers on the first road trip of the season, a 2-1 shootout loss in which he was indeed at the top of his game, but was not helped by an offense that was not opportunistic.
A 3-2 overtime loss to his former team, the Washington Capitals, Oct. 13 is another one he'd probably like to have back. Once again, though, Johnson gave the Pens a chance to win on a night when their forwards couldn't finish.
His first win of 2011-12, a 4-2 decision over the Minnesota Wild Oct. 18, was the kind of victory that epitomizes the way the Penguins have played. They had lost three in a row, they were desperate for goals, and against a team that traditionally has stymied them, they needed their netminder to be their best player. He was.
Furthermore, after Johnson, whose 24 saves helped break that losing streak, got his leg inadvertently smashed by Matt Niskanen against the right post that night, it became obvious he was playing through pain...and wanted to. From that point forward, it was also obvious the compete level of his teammates went up a notch.
That's what the Penguins have been all about so far on this young season. Show me another team in the NHL with better chemistry, and show me another team getting more heroic play than that of Fleury and Johnson--who owns a comparable 1.91 GAA and .925 save percentage, by the way.
We're tired of the injured list growing just as soon as it shrinks. We're tired of the two-game suspensions. We're tired of "game-time decisions." We're tired of being teased with Crosby practice footage like the pretty girl in homeroom who gives you a kiss, and yet, for some reason, is still reluctant to accompany you to the dance (those who know me intimately know I know a thing or two about that).
But as long as Fleury and "Johnny" continue playing at this level, you won't be tired of watching this Penguin team. It will remain within reach of the Eastern Conference throne until it is, as long last, completely healthy. It will give them a chance to dance with Lord Stanley once again (don't worry, I eventually got my dance too).
Seeing footage of Fleury's off-season safari adventure on ROOT Sports was amusing. He got to see all sorts of exotic animals--including, yes, penguins.
There's two Penguins in particular I hope don't leave their cage anytime soon.
Be sure to visit Casey Shea's "Shea-ved Ice" blog at 937thefan.com, and tune into SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan for continuing coverage of the 2011-12 Penguins!
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)
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