As the NHL steps aside to shine a spotlight on the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the Pittsburgh Penguins find themselves in a familiar place. More than two-thirds of the way through the season, the Pens continue to run away with the Metropolitan Division and lead the Eastern Conference with 83 points. At its current pace, this Pittsburgh squad figures to, at the very least, threaten several club records. What’s more, the Penguins employ both the circuit’s leading scorer and league leader in wins among goaltenders.
Despite all that dominance, though, no shortage of questions surround one of hockey’s elite teams. Can they make a legitimate run in the postseason, for example, given their lack of depth up front? After another successful regular season, will they finally exorcise their recent playoff demons?
With more uncertainty surrounding such a successful squad than one might anticipate, we thought we’d take a look at five Pittsburgh storylines to follow in the coming months:
Sidney Crosby’s Hardware Collection
Sidney Crosby has proven that, when healthy, there’s virtually no stopping him. Having already accomplished more at 26 than most dream of achieving in a career, Crosby has evolved into the game’s finest player. He’s captured nearly every individual award imaginable, captained his team to Stanley Cup glory and potted a golden goal that cemented his legacy in hockey lore.
Yet, he’s “only” secured one Art Ross, one Hart, one Rocket Richard and two Lester B. Pearson/Ted Lindsay Awards. Because, despite the dominance he consistently displays whenever he laces up the skates, injuries have no doubt hindered Crosby’s ability to further fill his trophy case.
That could change this year with Crosby, once again, turning the NHL into his personal playground.
Sid’s 78 points provide him with a double-digit cushion in the race for the Art Ross Trophy and, despite a recent slump (by his standards, anyway), he continues to lead a Penguins’ club that spent much of the first half of the season ravaged by injuries. Consequently, he’ll come out of the Olympic break as the front runner to claim the Hart Trophy and finally resume filling his trophy case.
Can Olli Maatta Continue his Stellar Play?
Olli Maatta wasn’t supposed to stick with the Penguins, at least not this year. But there he was, cracking the lineup on opening night. Most assumed, however, Maatta would eventually return to the London Knights, that he would have his cup of coffee in Pittsburgh before the Pens shipped him back to the OHL. Nope. Maatta never gave Ray Shero a choice, consistently playing at a level that ensured the youngster would remain in Western Pennsylvania for the long-haul.
In fact, along with Matt Niskanen, Maatta has helped anchor a blue line playing significant portions of the season without its most prominent defenders. And, when the rookie’s game finally hit the inevitable bump in the road, he returned from a healthy scratch more focused than ever, taking his game to a new level that has the Penguins believing Maatta deserves Calder consideration:
“I don’t follow other players around the league and their numbers all that much. But I know this: I know how good Olli has been this year, and I know what he’s done…It’s easier for forwards. Maybe putting up huge numbers isn’t easy, but you have to consider what Olli’s been asked to do. And he keeps getting better.” – Matt Niskanen, on Maatta’s stellar play during his rookie season
While Olli’s game continues to improve, one can’t help but wonder if the 19-year-old will ultimately hit a wall. After all, by the time the playoffs begin, the rookie will have played a lot of hockey this year, adjusting to the rigors of an 82-game NHL schedule and suiting up for Finland in the Olympics.
So, will he ultimately show signs of fatigue as we delve deeper into the season? To this point, Maatta has proven it isn’t wise to bet against him but it’s certainly a situation worth monitoring.
Is Marc-Andre Fleury Playing too Much?
Marc-Andre Fleury entered the 2013-’14 campaign with an albatross around his neck. After leading the Penguins to a single postseason series victory in four years, no shortage of fans cried for the shipment of the maligned goaltender out of town. When the Pens stood behind their franchise goalie, though, “The Flower” responded, easing fears regarding the loss of Tomas Vokoun with inspired play between the Pittsburgh pipes.
Indeed, Fleury currently leads the league in wins (31) while posting some of the best numbers of his career. His 2.23 GAA, for example, would represent a career best while a .919 save percentage pales only to Fleury’s 2007-’08 season (.921). And, while judgement will ultimately be reserved for his playoff performance, even the harshest of critics would surely admit the Penguins owe a great deal of their current stranglehold on the Metropolitan to The Flower.
The loss of Vokoun, however, seemingly pressed Fleury into more action than most would have anticipated. Yes, Jeff Zatkoff continues to provide solid play in net when given the opportunity but there’s little doubt Bylsma leans more heavily on Fleury with a less proven backup as the alternative.
That being the case, should the Penguins worry about burning Fleury out? After all, Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes ride largely on the back of one of the NHL’s busiest goaltenders. And, while an opportunity to recharge over the Olympic break will certainly help, the club can’t afford for The Flower to suffer from fatigue once the postseason rolls around.
The Trade Deadline
While the Penguins boast the best record in the Eastern Conference, they are not without their flaws. Even before Pascal Dupuis went down, questions about the club’s overall forward depth existed. Now, Shero needs to determine how to address multiple holes in his lineup if this team truly hopes to bring the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup to town this summer.
Given the team’s current LTIR situation, Shero may possess more room under the salary cap than initially anticipated but, with so many teams still in the playoff hunt, making the moves to address all of Pittsburgh’s needs may not be possible.
So, what is the priority? Strengthening the third and fourth lines? Finding a replacement for Dupuis and, if so, could that replacement realistically come from within the organization (Beau Bennett, perhaps)? Does Shero move anyone approaching free agency?
Further complicating things, what are the chances of Kris Letang coming back at all this year? Obviously, Letang’s health and quality of life trump any on-ice consequences the organization faces but, the fact remains, his long-term absence may influence whatever moves peak Shero’s interest in the coming weeks. Because, without the dynamic, minute-eating Letang, the Penguins may hesitate to move any of their other regulars along the blue line. As a result, addressing the clubs immediate needs may become that much more challenging.
Regardless of the direction Shero takes, the deadline should prove interesting for Pittsburgh fans aching for another Cup celebration.
Ask any Pens’ supporter and they’ll tell you the regular season means virtually nothing. This team could clinch the division in mid-March, capture the President’s Trophy or set a franchise record for wins and it wouldn’t matter without a successful playoff run. Because, given the postseason failures of the last four years, the Pens’ faithful thirst for springtime success.
Indeed, with high-end talent comes high expectations and the Penguins possess both; fair or not, many are disappointed with a single Cup captured by a squad headlined by Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. And, so, after another wildly successful regular season, an additional dissatisfying playoff performance won’t be tolerated.
The pressure is on to win and to win now. As a result, the Penguins’ postseason will provide the ultimate storyline for one of hockey’s most entertaining clubs.