From concussions to suspensions, this has already been one of the more interesting seasons for the Pittsburgh Penguins and their fans. Although the injuries to Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal, Zybnek Michalek, Kris Letang, and many others has meant that the Penguins once again resemble the hard-working 2010-2011 squad, there has still been a number of pleasant surprises this season, and of course disappointments.

Surprises:

Matt Niskanen – After taking heat after a great rookie season in Dallas, Niskanen came to Pittsburgh as part of the trade that sent Alex Goligoski to Dallas and James Neal to Pittsburgh. Criticized in Dallas as a poor positional player with offensive skills that seemed to have disappeared overnight, Penguins fans were skeptical of what they were receiving. This year, Niskanen has been asked to step into a huge gap in the defensive squad left by injuries to Kris Letang, Zybnek Michalek, Ben Lovejoy, and Paul Martin and he has started to show the offensive talent that made him a rookie sensation. With Martin and Letang out, Niskanen has been leading the top powerplay unit at the point for the Penguins and has really started to improve on the defensive side of his game as well, but is still prone to the occasional mistake.

Pascal Dupuis – Another trade throw-in, Dupuis came to town in the notorious Hossa deal that sent Colby Armstrong and Eric Christensen down to the late Atlanta Thrashers. Since that trade Dupuis has found a home on the team’s top line alongside Sidney Crosby, when healthy, but this year, with Crosby out and the lines shuffled, Dupuis has found his offensive touch. Currently, Dupuis is 3rd on the Penguins with 23 points in 34 games and has been a key component to the 4th ranked penalty kill, while also seeing some time on the 2nd powerplay unit.

The Powerplay – Yeah, you just read that right. The Penguins powerplay has been a pleasant surprise for the Penguins this year. Clicking at 19.6% the Penguins powerplay is currently ranked 8th in the entire NHL. Unbelievable when it seems that the Penguins still have trouble managing the puck on some man-advantages, while looking like the Globetrotters on others. What matters is that with the 8th ranked powerplay in the league and the 4th ranked penalty kill, the Penguins are now putting themselves in a position to win the special teams battle every night.

Joe Vitale – In his 3rd year with the Penguins organization, Vitale has shown the Penguins that they no longer have a need for overpriced superstar talent to play on the checking lines. Although Vitale’s offensive upside is limited (7 points in 30 games), his hard work and strong play on and off the puck has made a difference to the Penguins ability to roll four lines throughout the game.

Disappointments:

Injuries – When will the madness end? Only 6 Penguins have played in all 34 games this year. Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Letang, Orpik, Michalek, Martin, Park, and Tyler Kennedy have all missed significant time this year due to varying injuries.

Brooks Orpik – Over the last 6 games, I’ve been watching Brooks Orpik much more closely than usual, because I started to notice something happening with his game. I don’t know if it’s the pressure or the unusually high amount of ice time that he is receiving due to injuries, but Orpik has not looked like the top-pairing defenseman that we need him to be to succeed. Orpik has begun to play what I like to call “Gonchar defense,” which former Pens defenseman Sergei Gonchar made famous during the 2009-2010 season, especially during the playoffs. “Gonchar defense” is when an attacking forward is coming down the ice and the defender continues to back off the forward while screening the goaltender, or even backing up into the goaltender. The first goal by the Blackhawks is a perfect example of Orpik playing “Gonchar defense” and so is the goal Vanek scored against the Pens the other night. As a veteran, I expect more out of Orpik, especially having seen what he’s done in the past.

Brent Johnson – When most writers discuss goaltending issues, it’s usually about the starting goalie of the team, but the Penguins have been fortunate enough to have a dependable leader in net with Marc Andre Fleury. Unfortunately, the Penguins have seen a drop in play from their back-up goaltender Brent Johnson, who was instrumental in keeping the Pens afloat during Fleury’s early season struggles last year. With a record of 2-4-2 in 8 games this season, Johnson has not been the dependable veteran presence that the Penguins expect to play when needing to give Fleury a night off. The Penguins will need a better performance out of Johnson in the next few months, or we could see the potential for Brad Thiessen, who’s been looking great in the AHL, to steal a few starts from him.