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Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Penguins' Midseason Awards by @DXTraeger

The Penguins are Primed to Repeat as Stanley Cup Champs
The Pittsburgh Penguins hit the halfway mark of the 2016-2017 on Thursday night, losing in inglorious fashion to the Ottawa Senators by a final of 4-1.

Head coach Mike Sullivan "celebrated" his first back-to-back regular season losses in over a year by being ejected...probably for verbally expressing to the officials how terrible the Penguins' penalty-kill effort was that evening.

The past two losses aside, the 26-10-5 Penguins sit tied for fourth place (with the New York Rangers) in the top-heavy Eastern Conference, and are a mere five points away from the best record in the NHL.

As is the (blogging) custom, we celebrate the midway point of the hockey campaign by delving out some imaginary hardware.

Team MVP:  Sidney Crosby

While naming the sport's best player as the team's MVP screams "LAZY," Crosby has reinvented his game by realizing that sometimes, the game's best passer needs to just shoot the damn puck.

Yes, the above is a simplistic breakdown of what's made Crosby the hands-on favorite to claim the Rocket Richard Trophy for goal scoring, but suddenly adopting a "shoot first" mentality after a decade of deferring has caught the league's goaltenders by surprise, as his ridiculous 21.7% shooting percentage will attest.

Crosby's line construction (playing alongside Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary) is in part responsible for #87's scoring resurgence: while both Rust and Sheary have the speed to keep up with the Pens' captain, and Rust has excelled at puck retrieval, neither winger has an elite finishing touch, thus encouraging Crosby to shoot more often.

Sid's 45 points are 5 behind current league leader Connor McDavid, but Crosby has played a ridiculous 9 fewer games than Edmonton's wunderkind.  Similarly, Sir Sidney leads the NHL with 26 goals, and the next highest scorer, the Kings' Jeff Carter, has only 22 with 7 more games played.

Best Defenseman:  Justin Schultz

 (DISCLAIMER: before I'm burned at the internet stake, I hereby acknowledge that Kris Letang is a vastly superior overall player while Schultz is primarily a one-dimensional talent on the blue line)

Justin Schultz is living up to the hype surrounding him when he joined the Edmonton Oilers as a free agent back in the 2012-2013 season, and he's doing so by playing to his strengths.  In Edmonton, Schultz was being asked to play top pair minutes with hefty responsibilities at both ends of the ice.
Justin Schultz: somehow GMJR's 2nd Best Trade Last Year

With the Penguins, the expectations have been pared down and Schultz has been allowed to excel at what he does best: skate, move the puck, and create offense.

As a result, Schultz is tied for 7th among all defensemen in scoring (26 points), and trails only Ryan Suter in +/- with a dazzling +24.

Schultz gambled on himself in returning to the Penguins on a cheap 1 year deal, but it looks as though the wager will pay off in spades during this summer's free agency.

Best Goalie:  Matt Murray

Marc-Andre Fleury is the Ray Romano of Pittsburgh: everybody loves him.  Fleury's been part of the franchise core for over a decade, is apparently the best teammate ever, and he backstopped the team to the Stanley Cup a mere 7 years ago.

Unfortunately, he has been thoroughly outplayed by the backstopper from last year, Matt Murray.

Murray, signed to a contract extension in the off-season, has sparked to the tune of a 13-4-1 record with a Top 10 (minimum 20 games played) GAA of 2.28.

Murray's style stands in polar contrast to that of Fleury: he's a big body that relies on positioning, not athleticism, to stop the puck.  Murray aggressively cuts down the angle, and has displayed superior rebound control compared to #29's.

Perhaps most importantly, Murray is not as prone to surrendering bad goals at the rate Fleury does.  Fleury has also shown a penchant for allowing goals early in games, a trait not shared by the younger Murray.

If there's any criticism to be had of Murray, it's that he doesn't seem to track deflections particularly well, and his aggressive angles can leave him prone should the puck carrier opt to skate around the net.

Disagree with any of the above?  Feel free to voice your opinions in the comments section, or tweet at @DXTraeger on Twitter!

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