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Scouting Report: Pittsburgh

On Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguin defence, and Canadian Olympian Chris Kunitz

Is this the year Marc-Andre Fleury silences his critics?
Is this the year Marc-Andre Fleury silences his critics?
Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

The Pittsburgh Penguins are the best team in the East. The Edmonton Oilers...have some work to do in the West.

Here to answer some questions about the Penguins of Pittsburgh is *the* editor of SB Nation's Pensburgh, Hooks Orpik.

On with the question making.

Jeff Chapman: Sidney Crosby currently has 65 points in 45 games this season, which is, uh, pretty good. He keeps that sort of chicanery up and he'll easily smash the 100 point mark. His linemate is Chris Kunitz, which you likely know has caused a little bit of a stir by being selected to play in the Olympics. While a few different players could have made the cut, do you feel Canada selected the right guy in Kunitz over say, Martin St. Louis or...I don't know, Taylor Hall?

Hooks Orpik: I apologize for the length of this answer in advance, but I think it’s an interesting question. Generationally talented players like Gretzky, Lemieux and Crosby are said to be "two steps ahead" of everyone else, but they still have to play the game just like everyone else. The difference in what makes them special starts with the insane level of anticipation (and vision..and hands..and touch..), and that anticipation is rooted in familiarity. Kunitz and Crosby have played 2,200 ES minutes, and counting, with countless more hours of practice. Crosby knows Kunitz’ tendencies, he knows exactly how he will react to any situation on a forecheck or when they’re working a cycle. Crosby knows where Kunitz will be on the ice and he knows precisely when he’ll be at certain spots on the ice. Taking that into removes variables from Sid’s game and makes him even more dangerous. And that undeniably meshes on the scoreboard, with only John Tavares being a more productive Canadian player from Lockout 2.0 on than Kunitz (other than Crosby, of course).

If you watch Chris Kunitz closely (like the play he made last game on Crosby’s GTG) it’s clear that he is a capable player that is willing to go into "dirty areas" and is successful at generating offense. His production is no doubt improved because of Sidney Crosby, but in my opinion the chemistry, familiarity and way their styles mesh and is a proven productive pair make it a solid choice. I don’t think Kunitz is simply a helpless passenger to Crosby (and Kunitz does have a history of playing well with Getzlaf/Perry as well).

Which isn’t to say Crosby wouldn’t play well with Taylor Hall or Martin St. Louis. Anyone in contention for Team Canada is obviously really good at playing hockey, and when you put the best player with someone who is also good, of course they would play well.

The benefit in choosing Kunitz is that the Olympics are a short 4-7 game tournament. Kunitz is a proven point producer who meshes very well with Crosby. I don’t see why there’s a need to reinvent the wheel, especially when there’s not a lot of time to do so. Crosby and Kunitz play amazingly well together and set each other up for the best chance of success right off the bat. I think it was wise for Canada to include Kunitz.

JC: A cursory glance at Marc-Andre Fleury's stats show that he's having a decent season with a .917 SV%, which is a fair bit higher than his career average of .910 SV%. What's the general feeling about Marc-Andre Fleury among the base?

HO: A lot of fans don’t know what to make of Marc-Andre Fleury. He’s had generally good regular seasons in 2011-2012 and 2013 only to have total meltdowns in the playoffs. He has a new goalie coach now and has seen a sports psychologist over the summer, are those changes enough to provide a different result? It’s also worth mentioning that Fleury’s save % was in the .923% neighborhood until a couple weeks ago when the team reverted back to wanting to trade chances and play in 5-4 and 6-5 games again, which is troubling but not something to pin on Fleury, who can be a bystander to the game the team in front of him is playing, which can be defensively lax at times.

Especially considering all the injuries (the Pens have only had their Top 4 defensemen all in the lineup for a total of 4 periods), Fleury’s done a solid job this year behind a patch-work team. He’s also got a shiny 1.000% in the shootout this season and has been great on the PK to go along with all the wins he customarily racks up playing behind a quality team. That’s all well and good, but none of that really matters because no one really knows what’ll happen in Game 1 of the playoffs. That moment of truth definitely has Pens fans’ anxious to see if Fleury can finally shake whatever demons he’s had.

JC: Who is the biggest surprise for the Penguins this year? Biggest disappointment?

HO: The Pens biggest pleasant surprise is undoubtedly Olli Maatta. The 2012 1st round pick and made the team out of training camp when a roster spot opened up with Kris Letang getting hurt. Maatta has played really well and shown amazing poise with the puck, skating ability and decision making in the first half of the season that belies the fact he’s 19 years old. His boxcars aren't eye-popping (3g, 11a) but his role on the team and ice-time has increased as the season has progressed. Maatta's play has hit a couple of bumps in the road lately (resulting in his only healthy scratch of the season) but overall he's been a great player. Maatta was named to Team Finland for the Olympics and it’s really remarkable how much his stock has risen in the past four or five months.

I'd also give a nod to the coaches. Dan Bylsma and assistant Tony Granato have Team USA responsibilities to deal with, but they (along with assistants Todd Reirden and Jacques Martin) still have a top team in the standings with many replacement level NHL players in the lineup. They also boast the league's #1 power play (25.7%) and #2 penalty kill unit (88.8%). The Pens the best in the league at 24-2-0 when they score first, and even if they're trailing after two periods they have a very respectable 5-8-1 record. Every night the team is prepared to play well, and I definitely give credit to the coaching staff for that. Not bad for a group of coaches who legitimately had to wonder if they’d still have jobs with the Pens after last summer’s playoff sweep.

Disappointingly, the injuries have been a bummer. So far the top four defensemen have combined to miss 78 total games. Vokoun's been out all season and might be facing retirement due to blood clots. Pascal Dupuis tore his ACL and is out for the season. Promising youngster Beau Bennett only played 12 games. Evgeni Malkin has missed 11 games. Injuries and a suspension have cost James Neal 20 games. Every NHL team has to deal with injuries, but the frequency (Pens lead the league in man games lost) and the importance of the players going down has been astounding.

JC: Pittsburgh's allowing a tidy 27.6 shots per game, tied with Anaheim for sixth overall. That's nearly two shots less per game than last year. That might not sound like a whole lot, but over the course of the season, that's probably a difference of around 15 goals against. Who's doing most of the heavy lifting on the back end?

HO: I say Jacques Martin? But, on the serious, Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin are the pair that matches the opponent's top line (**QoC here) but Martin's missed half the year. The Maatta and Matt Niskanen pairing has also been very important and both of them have remained uninjured so they did a lot of tough work when the Pens had a lot of defensive call-ups in the lineup, so they deserve some credit too, if only for being able to log a lot of actual minutes so far.

JC: Finally, the Oilers and Penguins don't meet up all that often. Tell us about a Penguin who we should keep a look out for.

HO: The Jussi Jokinen - Evgeni Malkin - James Neal line has been electric since Malkin returned to the lineup two games ago. Neal especially has been on fire, in the nine games since he's come back from suspension he's piled 15 points (6 goals and 9 assists). In the last six games, Neal has an Ovechkin-esque 29 shots on goal. Neal is very dangerous right now and throwing a lot of rubber at the net, which leads to good things for the Penguins. And of course, there's always a chance Sidney Crosby is going to do something special, but saying him for an answer on who to watch almost seems too easy.

Thanks to Hooks for his time. Visit Pensburgh to see more of Hooks and the crew, and check him out on Twitter.