PITTSBURGH-The NHL season is just about 60 percent over for the Pittsburgh Penguins as the league pauses for the All-Star break.
The Penguins are currently on a season-best seven-game winning streak, which they'll take into Tuesday's home game against Toronto.
It hasn't been a smooth ride, mostly because of injuries, but the Penguins are clearly a legitimate threat to come out of the Eastern Conference.
On the occasion of the break, let's grade the performances over the first 49 games. The grading is limited to players with at least 10 games.
Evgeni Malkin: After a slow start because of offseason knee surgery, Malkin has kicked his game into high gear again. With Sidney Crosby absent, he's stepped up and gives opponents fits. Consider this, too: With Crosby missing, teams have a chance to key solely on Malkin. He's handling that pressure, playing well at both ends of the rink, and he's even upgraded his efficiency in shootouts. Grade: A.
James Neal: What happened to the people who complained the Penguins got fleeced when they traded for Neal at last season's deadline? His quick release and accurate shot make him dangerous, and he's worked well with Malkin. With 27 goals at the break, he has a legitimate shot at 40. He's the sniper Crosby has always needed; too bad Crosby isn't able to take advantage. Grace: A.
Chris Kunitz: The third member of the top line, a lot of his contributions don't show up on the score sheet. The Penguins' coaching staff preaches "net front presence," and Kunitz provides it. He sets screens and makes life difficult for goalies, creating chances for Malkin and Neal. He's not the biggest guy, but he plays fearlessly. Grace: A-.
Pascal Dupuis: A recent slump has hurt his numbers. His speed and physical play make him a valuable player, but it's disappointing that his production has fallen off from early-season levels. Dupuis was considered a marginal NHL player before he came to Pittsburgh. He's shed that label now. Grade: B.
Steve Sullivan: Started very slowly, despite getting plenty of prime scoring chances. Sullivan is a veteran, so maybe his value will increase down the stretch and in playoffs. For now, though, his play has been disappointing. Grade: C.
Tyler Kennedy: He was one of the few forwards who took on a bigger role when injuries hit the team hard. He hasn't followed up on that enough this season. Has speed and isn't afraid to use his body, but the Penguins are desperate for secondary scoring. Grade: C.
Jordan Staal: Another season significantly interrupted by injuries for a guy who used to be an iron man. Not his fault, of course, but his absence hurts, especially with Crosby missing so many games. When Staal has played, he's been a contributor. Grade: B.
Matt Cooke: Give him credit for cleaning up his game and eliminating the cheap shots that got him a 17-game suspension last year. But has losing that edge also hurt his overall play? Production is significantly down. Maybe Cooke is still looking for a balance that allows him to play tough without running afoul of the rules. Grade: C.
Sidney Crosby: The biggest stat is games played: 8. He's had no problems playing his usual style, and he's been as productive as ever. The problem, obviously, is keeping him healthy enough to play. Grade: Incomplete.
Arron Asham: It's been an undistinguished first half because of injuries and an inability to score. Like Sullivan, Asham's worth may reveal itself as the games become more important. For now, though, there's not a lot there. Grade: C.
Richard Park: He was a nice pick-up as a defensive specialist and a third or fourth-line center. Still has great speed and is an asset on penalty killing. He's chipped in with some offense, too. Grade: B.
Joe Vitale: Supplanted Mark Letestu on the depth chart and plays a more physical game. Vitale can crash, but he has to score a little more to keep his spot if the Penguins ever have their full roster. Grade: C.
Craig Adams: Fans complain about his lack of scoring, but coach Dan Bylsma thinks he's the perfect fit for the role. Grade: B.
Dustin Jeffrey: Still recovering from knee surgery, he's a talent who should help more in the second half. Grade: Incomplete.
Kris Letang: His value was demonstrated when he was out with a concussion. His speed creates major problems for opponents, and he's a force on the power play. Grade: B+.
Paul Martin: He's been playing better after an awful start and has whittled down his plus-minus rating from double digits. But that start was troubling. Grade: C.
Zbynek Michalek: Probably playing a notch lower than he did last season. He and Martin have reunited and should be the shutdown defensive pair. Grade: B-.
Matt Niskanen: Feeling comfortable after a tough start last season, he's been a pleasant surprise. Grade: B.
Deryk Engelland: Fighting is down because not many want to take him on. Solid defensively, makes intelligent pffensive decisions with the puck. Grade: B.
Brooks Orpik: The guy other teams hate to play against. Always physical, but almost always under control with that aspect. Rock solid. Grade: A-.
Ben Lovejoy: He's being pushed down the depth chart with the emergence of Niskanen and some promising prospects on the way. Grade: C.
Marc-Andre Fleury: He's playing more than ever, and he's playing well. Grade: A-.
Brent Johnson: One of the big disappointments so far, he's the reason Fleury is playing so much. Great team guy, perfect complement to Fleury, but he hasn't played well at all. Grade: D.