The Pittsburgh Penguins arguably have the best one-two offensive punch in the NHL in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
But the team also has exhibited some warts in the first half of this shortened season.
They have noticeable soft spots in their defense and backup goaltender Tomas Vokoun’s has surrendered a number of charitable goals in his first season with the team.
Despite their deficiencies, the Penguins sit atop the Atlantic Division in the NHL’s Eastern Conference.
Thursday night’s 5-4 come-from-behind win against the hated Philadelphia Flyers marked the halfway point in this 48-game season.
The Penguins still have time to work out their flaws, but it may not matter.
One of the league’s Original Six teams, the Chicago Blackhawks, have been by far the best team in the NHL so far this season.
But none of that will mean anything if the Hawks’ don’t go on to win their second Stanley Cup championship since 2010.
Besides the Hawks and Penguins, there will be a number of other Cup contenders in this scaled-down season, including the defending champion Los Angeles Kings, the Flyers, Vancouver Canucks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins, New Jersey Devils, Anaheim Ducks and New York Rangers.
Obviously, the Penguins need a healthy Crosby and Malkin to make a serious run at their first Stanley Cup title since 2009.
“We definitely can be in that conversation, but there’s a lot of teams that can be there,” Crosby told reporters last week. “It’s up to us to prove that every night. We’ve got to be better.
“There’s a lot of expectations and we’ve got to make sure that we’re a little bit better if we want to be in that category.”
Malkin returned to the lineup six days ago after missing the previous four games with a concussion.
The same symptoms limited Crosby, the team’s captain, to just 63 games the past two seasons, but he is off to a quick start and will be a strong candidate once again for the Hart Trophy, which he won in 2007 as the league’s most valuable player.
Malkin captured the MVP award last year, when he was the NHL’s regular-season scoring champion.
Pirates searching for success
The Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t won a World Series since 1979.
They haven’t had a winning season since 1992, when Atlanta pinch-hitter Francisco Cabrera delivered that painful, two-out two-run single off Pittsburgh reliever and State College’s Stan Belinda that chased home David Justice and slow-footed Sid Bream, who beat the lame throw by Pirates’ left fielder Barry Bonds.
That stunning 2-1 win sent the Braves to the World Series and ended the Pirates’ three-year divisional championship run under Jim Leyland.
Pittsburgh hasn’t come close to winning a championship since then, suffering through 20 consecutive losing seasons, which is a major North American professional sports record.
But the Pirates have been at or near the top of the NL Central standings at the All-Star break the past two years before suffering through major second-half slides.
The 2013 Pirates, who appropriately open their season on April Fool’s Day at PNC Park against the Chicago Cubs, have one legitimate star in center fielder Andrew McCutchen. Pitcher A.J. Burnett also has been a valuable contributor, along with second baseman Neil Walker, whose 2012 ended prematurely because of a herniated disk in his back.
The Pirates’ big major offseason addition was signing former New York Yankees catcher Russell Martin to a two-year, $17 million contract.
He went from a franchise that has won a record 27 World Series titles to one that has rung up a record 20 consecutive losing seasons.
Martin, 29, hit a career-low .211 last season for the Yankees but also finished with a career-best 21 home runs.
“It wasn’t a very good year,” he said, “and I know I’m capable of doing better.”
So are the Pirates, who also dealt closer Joel Hanrahan to the Boston Red Sox.
But don’t expect any miracles – 21 consecutive losing seasons looks to be a virtual lock for the bumbling Buccos.
Steelers shuffling roster, money
The Steelers, coming off an 8-8 season after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2009, have been busy restructuring the contracts of some of their key players this offseason.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, wide receiver Antonio Brown and linebacker Lawrence Timmons have all agreed to restructured deals to help the team slide under the salary cap in advance of the March 12 deadline.
The team on Saturday released five-time Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison to avoid his contract’s salary cap hit, which would have been more than $10 million.
In other news, the team re-signed cornerback William Gay last week to a three-year contract worth $4.5 million.
He was a nickel back on two Super Bowl teams with the Steelers after being a fifth-round draft pick in 2007, but he spent last season playing for the Arizona Cardinals.
Gay said Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor had a hand in helping him rejoin the Steelers.
“When he heard the news about me getting released by Arizona, he called me and was like, ‘What do you need me to do?’” Gay told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“He thinks he’s my agent. So he ended up calling (Steelers general manager) Kevin Colbert himself and said, ‘Hey man, you need to get Will Gay back.’”
Ron Musselman is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter@ronmusselman8.