The first month of the NHL season is in the books, and the Pittsburgh Penguins have already opened up a 7 point lead in the Metropolitan Division. While Pittsburgh's 114 point pace has a lot to do with it, it certainly doesn't hurt that the division is shaping up to be easier than a .... well, there are many analogies that fit here, but at the risk of insulting your mother, wife, or girlfriend I'll just say it's a very easy division. Of the 22 teams outside the Metropolitan Division, 18 would find themselves in 2nd place or higher if they switched divisions. Still, it's nice to get back to normalcy after the lockout cancelled hockey at this time last year. While a mandatory break from NHL hockey is not something I'd like to endure again, the shortened 48 game schedule was about as exciting as you'd ever hope the regular season could be league wide.
The NHL packed more games into a smaller time frame to salvage a season, and each individual game mattered much more. While a win in the strike shortened season was still worth two points in the standings, it held the equivalent of roughly 3.4 points in an 82 game schedule. All of the sudden, if you lose 3 games in a row, it's like you went on a 5 game losing streak normally. Winning 5 in a row is basically the same as going 8-0-1 in a full season. Each game mattered more, and it only took a week to drastically change a team's luck, for better or for worse.
It's a big change of pace to go through that type of race through the season, then a playoff trip to the ECF, and start back at the beginning of a long season where the results in October don't matter that much, especially in the case of a team like the Penguins. Piling up the points early in the year is never a bad thing, but there's still a long season ahead that needs to be played. You can't win the Stanley Cup during this time of the year, although you can certainly lose it. Take a look at the Philadelphia Flyers. I'll wait for you to stop laughing before going on.
Ok, let's continue. Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) had a great stat recently in one of his 30 Thoughts pieces. Since the 2004-05 lockout, only 3 times out of 32 chances has a team that was 4 points or more out of a playoff spot on November 1 gone on to make the playoffs. Philadelphia currently sits 5 points out of the playoffs, assuming that they manage to finish 3rd or higher in the division. If not, they find themselves 8 points out of a wildcard spot, and that could jump to 10 points on November 1 if the Bruins win tonight. With the addition of the loser point into the hockey standings, it becomes increasingly difficult for a team to dig itself out of even a moderately small hole, let alone the disaster the Flyers have dug for themselves so far.
While it's not entirely truthful to say this time of the year is meaningless, it takes a monumentally bad start to bury a team for the year. Unlike the strike shortened season, most teams have time to recover throughout the year and shake off an average start. Even stretches of play that might have been disastrous last season can be easily shrugged off this year. Despite starting the year with a 3 game and 4 game win streak, the Penguins recently experienced one of those stretches where they lost to the Avalanche, Islanders, and Maple Leafs. It's never a good thing to lose 3 in a row, but a look at what happened hardly shows cause for concern.
The Penguins dominated gameplay against the Avalanche, as can be seen in the 71.3% Corsi For they posted in the game, meaning that 71.3% of the time a player directed a shot towards the net it came from the stick of a Pittsburgh player. They posted above average numbers against the Islanders (52.0%) and the Maple Leafs as well (52.5%), but with the overall team speed both teams possess they create a bad matchup for the Penguins quick, north/south orientated transition game, and this was easy to see in the first round of the playoffs last year. It certainly didn't help that James Neal, Beau Bennett, and Matt D'Agostini missed all three games with injuries while Kris Letang worked his way back into the lineup and Rob Scuderi left after playing only 7:26 in the Maple Leafs game with a broken ankle. The Pens might have lost 3 straight, but they lost one game when Jean-Sebastien Giguere stood on his head and two games where teams that presented bad matchup problems came back to win in the 3rd period.
To show again why it's too early to panic, the Penguins have won both their games after the losing streak, including against the defending Eastern Conference champs. Marc-Andre Fleury has been on top of his game, posting a 1.81 GAA and 0.927 save percentage early in the season while the offense, which led the league in goals scored each of the past two seasons, finds itself a respectable 9th in the league in scoring and has plenty of room to improve. While the injury bug continues to hit the roster hard, the Penguins will continue to get players back into the lineup, adding to both the top end talent to the gameday roster and the overall team depth. While it might be easy to panic after losing 3 straight, it's never as bad as it seems during a slump, and it's also never as good as it seems during a hot streak. The Penguins should know this as much as anyone, as they won 15 straight games last year, 11 straight games the year before, and 12 straight games in 2010-11. Unfortunately, all they have to show for that is an ECF berth and two first round exits. It's a long season, and every team goes through stretches where they win games and they lose games. Too much can happen over 82 games to get too high for the good times and too low for the bad times. Afterall, there's only one time when going on a hot streak really matters, and that doesn't happen in the regular season.