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Given all the things that the Pittsburgh Penguins have had to endure this season (the mumps, numerous injuries, a blood clot, Pittsburgh Dad's NSFW drunken hatred of hockey, etc.), sitting atop the Metropolitan Division and only 2 points out of first place in the Eastern Conference seems like a tremendous accomplishment.
Unfortunately, the Penguins' record comes a number of red flags, and a lot of aspects need to improve before Pittsburgh can contend for its fourth Stanley Cup.
Here are five specific ways Pittsburgh can enhance its game in the second half of the season:
1) Simplify things on the power-play.
The Penguins started off the 2014-15 season with a historically hot PP unit, converting on over 35% of their chances over the first 10 games of the season.
Unfortunately, as injuries began to creep in, so to came a refurbished and altered power-play, and over the past 25 games Pittsburgh has produced at an anemic 10% rate.
The reason? As has been the case in years past, the skill players of the Penguins get too cute and pass up shooting opportunities in lieu of trying to make the perfect backdoor pass.
The good news is that the Penguins simply have to switch gears and employ an simple "grip it and rip it" mentality on shots from the point, with Kunitz, Hornqvist and Perron crashing the net for rebound opportunities.
This tactic should also free up space along the boards for Crosby and Malkin to facilitate quality scoring chances (instead of opposing defenders aggressively pursuing them as is the case right now).
2) Make the necessary call-ups from Wilkes-Barre Scranton and commit to those players.
The spate of injuries suffered by the Penguins has meant that several call-ups from the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins have seen time at the NHL level and had a chance to see how their respective styles translate against the best competition.
Several of these players have looked the part of everyday NHLers, most notably Bryan Rust, Brian Dumoulin, and Bobby Farnham.
In the case of Farnham, his high energy (and frankly crazy) antics have energized both his teammates and the fans at the Consol Energy Center. Farnham provides a clear spark and upgrade over the play of Zach Sill, but as of this article, Farnham has once again sent back to the minors with Sill occupying his space on the roster.
Mike Johnston affording a veteran like Sill the chance to get his proverbial motor running during the regular season is one thing- giving him over 40 games to make his mark, and then continuing to play him even when he's shown to be no better than mediocre- is quite another.
Johnston and Rutherford need to accept the limitations of their current 3rd and 4th liners and make the changes necessary to benefit the Penguins come April and beyond.
3) Decide on a core of 7-8 defensemen and trade the rest.
As was the case under former GM Ray Shero, the Penguins continue to sit upon a goldmine of blue line talent; however, having the option of 10 NHL-quality defensemen is great for bragging purposes only, as the team can only dress six or seven of them on any given night.
Given the contract situation of some of the players (notably Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff), Rutherford and the Penguins' brass has to know that they're rostering a commodity that other playoff-bound teams would love to have, and in the tradition of Shero, they should look to moving one, two, or even three of these players to help fill in the gaps of the top 3 lines on offense to give the Penguins a look resembling the best teams out of the Western Conference last spring (Chicago and Los Angeles immediately come to mind).
As for everybody's favorite whipping boy, Rob Scuderi continues to see the ice despite playing a limited defensive role on defense. If the thinking behind playing Scuderi is to give the Penguins a blend of defensive and offensive minds on the back end, then fine: if the coaches are playing Scuderi simply because he has an unreasonably large salary cap hit, then he needs to go.
4) Figure out what's wrong with Sidney Crosby.
At this point, the Penguins have to be realistic with themselves and admit that for whatever reasons, Sidney Crosby is not playing the same brand of hockey that he has in years past.
Crosby has insisted that there's no prominent injury (although he denied an injury last spring only to reveal a wrist ailment that narrowly avoided surgery), and stats show that his shots on goal and shooting percentage are noticeably below his career averages.
The obvious visual change is that Sid has vacated his prior residence in the other team's goal mouth, allowing players like Kunitz and Hornqvist to take the beating and collect those garbage goals.
Crosby's vaunted hand-eye coordination has also failed him at various points this year, with multiple open nets eluding him as he fans on one-timer attempts he has previously capitalized on.
Crosby needs to try different things to get his scoring touch back, and it starts with shooting the puck more often. With Sid's innate skill, only good things can happen when he puts the puck on net (especially with talented teammates in the crease).
5) Work on beating the neutral zone trap.
The Penguins' kryptonite is the neutral zone trap, and until Pittsburgh figures out how to negate its effects on their offense, championship dreams will remain precisely that.
Under Johnston's system, the team wants to enter the attacking zone with both possession and speed to force defenders to collapse, thus opening lanes for activated defensemen and trailers.
None of these things can happen if the Penguins are forced to lose speed between the blue lines and attempt poor dump and chases that are easily cleared by opposing defenders.
As I have noted before, the Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils are the perfect examples of an inferior roster dictating the ebb and flow of the game against the skilled Penguins.
By taking away both the Penguins' speed and possession, the Flyers and Devils force the Pens into trying something they're not particularly adept at- offensive zone puck retrieval- and in doing so, setting up their opponents' transition offense since at least two Penguins forwards will be caught behind the goal line.
Pittsburgh has the Eastern Conference's most complete and skilled lineup, but they still have warts that must be covered for the team to end it string of spring disappointments. Acknowledging their own limitations would be the first such step to gearing up for the playoffs.