2012 NHL Playoffs: 10 Reasons the Pittsburgh Penguins Will Win the Stanley Cup
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Following a rigid set of steps or a specific formula does not guarantee any team the Stanley Cup at season's end. A combination of skill, team depth, determination, coaching, management and a bit of luck blend at precisely the right time can lead to a team hoisting hockey’s ultimate prize in early June.
Injuries to key players hurt the Pittsburgh Penguins after winning the 2009 Stanley Cup. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Kris Letang all sustained serious injuries over the next two seasons and missed a combined 235 games.
Depth, experience, coaching, management, the return of Crosby and Letang, the seemingly unstoppable Malkin, the emergence of James Neal as one of the league's top scorers and the All-Star goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury make the Penguins not only a contender to win the 2012 Stanley Cup, but also a favorite.
Crosby scoring his first goal of the season in his first comeback against the New York Islanders.
Widely regarded as the NHL's top player before suffering concussion trauma from hits taken in last year's Winter Classic against the Washington Capitals and the following game against Tampa Bay, Crosby missed the last 41 games of the 2010-2011 season and and a total of 60 games this season due to a concussion and neck injury.
After a premature comeback, "Sid the Kid" believes he has fixed his health problems and has scored two goals and 21 points in only 13 games this season. Few players ever have had the raw talent and natural ability to miss over an entire season's worth of games, only to return and average over 1.6 points per game.
Crosby's scoring touch, which he displayed during the 2009-2010 season when he scored 51 goals, is not needed with the rest of the team playing so well, but the 24-year-old has proved he can adapt and elevate his game whenever the team needs help.
The Malkin/Neal/Kunitz Line
Collectively, the line has 102 goals and 222 points so far this season.
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Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma experiments with new lines all the time, but he has kept one combination intact that has managed to take the NHL by storm. The chemistry between center Evgeni Malkin and winger James Neal has developed into something special.
Ray Shero acquired James Neal from the Dallas Stars at last year's trade deadline, hoping to add some offensive firepower to a playoff-bound Penguin team missing both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Neal scored only one goal in 20 regular season games and one goal in seven playoff games.
This year, "The Real Deal" scored in Pittsburgh's first regular season game, and has not stopped. The 24-year-old has 35 goals, 41 assists and 76 points, eclipsing his career highs in all three categories (27-28-55). At 6'2" and 205 pounds, Neal isn't afraid to initiate a little contact.
Evgeni Malkin is playing at another level. He started the year with a sore knee from offseason surgery and missed a few early games. The 25-year-old Russian has been on a tear ever since. His 95 points (45-50) lead the league and 1.44 points per game average is second only to teammate Sidney Crosby.
Chris Kunitz's gritty style of play adds just enough grit and toughness to the line. He is only nine points away from his career high of 60, despite having more than five goals disallowed this season.
This line has been one of the most productive combinations in the NHL this season, and it's hard to imagine it faltering in the postseason.
Kris Letang and the Defensemen
Kris Letang leads the Penguins defense.
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No, this isn't the name of a new band coming to a city near you (although Letang does have the hair of a rock star).
Sergei who? Kris Letang took over the role as top offensive defensman on the Penguins when Gonchar signed with the Ottawa Senators two years ago. "Tanger" has recorded 36 points in only 45 games this season. Paul Martin has 23 points in 64 games, and Matt Niskanen has 21 points in 72 games.
That's eight more combined points than Letang in 91 more combined games. Letang's offensive awareness from the blue line is undoubtedly necessary to the Penguins' success.
The 24-year-old isn't afraid of the rough stuff, possesses some of the most explosive speed in the NHL and perfectly compliments his partner, 31-year-old, heavy-hitting Brooks Orpik.
After separating Martin and Zbynek Michalek, the defense improved. Niskanen has emerged as a solid defender at only 25 years old, and Deryk Engelland provides some grit and toughness to the Penguins' blue-line crew.
The Penguins lack the shutdown tandem of Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi that helped win the 2009 Stanley Cup, but the Penguins defense is more balanced and more than good enough to take this team deep into the playoffs.
"Flower" is blooming in net for the Penguins.
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The Flower may not have the best goals against average (2.24), save percentage (.917) or lead the league in shutouts (3), but he does lead the league in wins (40). Also, he's won a Stanley Cup before.
For a goaltender in the NHL, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter how, it matters how many. Wins that is. Fleury simply gets the job done. He usually lets a flukey goal past, or gives the opposition a good scoring chance after a misplayed puck, but after the final buzzer, he usually earns the victory.
Fleury played in the NHL All-Star Game last year and was snubbed this year, so he might feel he still has something to prove.
"Flower" also knows how to win, even in the playoffs. Having backstopped the Penguins to two Eastern Conference Championships and one Stanley Cup in the past four seasons, he can compete with any goaltender in the NHL.
Jordan Staal is the Penguin's third-line center, and he has 22 goals.
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The Penguins' depth is unrivaled by any team in the NHL. It starts with the team's third line center, Jordan Staal.
Staal could be a first line center on most teams in the NHL and a second line center on any team in the NHL. In Pittsburgh, he's behind two superstars in Malkin and Crosby. The 22-year-old has 22 goals and 19 assists in only 53 games this season and plays an integral part on the Penguins' highly ranked penalty kill.
Role players like the speedy Pascal Dupuis (22 G, 25 A), play-making Steve Sullivan (14 G, 27 A), grinder Matt Cooke (17 G, 17 A), Craig Adams (5 G, 10 A) and tough guy Arron Asham (4 G, 9 A) provide the Penguins with defensive, gritty play on the offensive side of the puck.
They can put the puck in the net from time to time, and have valuable playoff experience.
Craig Adams may not put up huge numbers, but the Harvard grad is one of the league's premiere penalty killers.
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Special teams are a huge part of winning in the post-season. The best teams (usually) score on the man-advantage and shutdown the opposition's opportunities.
Jordan Staal, Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke and Craig Adams lead the No. 3 penalty kill in the league (89.1 percent).
The power play clicks at 19.5 percent, good for fifth in the NHL.
Here's a list of some of the accolades of players on the Penguins power play:
Evgeni Malkin: Calder Trophy winner, Hart Trophy nominee, Conn Smythe winner, Art Ross Trophy winner and four-time all-star.
Sidney Crosby: Calder Trophy nominee, Hart Trophy winner, Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy Winner, Art Ross Trophy winner and four-time All-Star.
Kris Letang: Two-time All-Star.
James Neal: One-time All-Star.
Jordan Staal: Calder Trophy nominee and Frank J. Selke Award nominee.
Oh, and Evgeni Malkin is the oldest player on the power play unit, and he's only 25.
Dan Bylsma has established himself among the NHL's top coaches.
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Dan Bylsma took the head coaching job in February 2009 after the firing of Michel Therrien. Four months later, he posed for a picture with the Stanley Cup. Last year, he won the Jack Adams trophy as the league's top coach.
Bylsma is a player's coach. He knows how to motivate his players and develop team chemistry. The Penguins are 157-77-24 with Bylsma behind the bench, and poised to finish with over 100 points for the third time in his four and a half seasons with the organization.
Bylsma understands match-ups and has phenomenal hockey sense. Now that he finally has a healthy team and has established himself as one of the league's top coaches, Bylsma just need to implement the right strategies to coach the Penguins to victory.
A Little Luck
The Devils and Senators could make some noise in this years' playoffs.
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A little bit of luck goes a long way. In 2009, the Carolina Hurricanes upset the No. 3 seeded in the first round of the playoffs, and the No. 1 seeded Boston Bruins in the second round in two seven game series.
By the time the Penguins got to them, the Hurricanes luck had run out and it was easy pickings for the "flightless birds." The Penguins ripped through the Hurricanes in four games by a combined score of 20-9.
Sleeper teams clearing the way of high seeds can really help a team on a roll.
This year, some sleeper teams have a chance to go deep into the Eastern Conference playoffs are the Ottawa Senators and the New Jersey Devils.
The Senators have good scoring and okay defense, but Craig Anderson isn't a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender. In a matchup against Pittsburgh, the lethal scoring of the Penguins is simply too much for the Senators.
The Devils have a Stanley Cup winning goaltender (well, maybe a few seasons ago), but lack the ability to really fill the net. In a seven-game series, the Penguins may not sweep, but they will win.
The Western Conference
The Penguins are 13-2-3 against Western Conference teams this season.
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The Penguins are 13-2-3 against the Western Conference.
If the Penguins make it to the Stanley Cup Finals where they will face the best of the West, they already know they can hang. A lot of factors decide playoff series, but the regular season is usually a good indicator of matchups. Quite frankly, the Western Conference doesn't match up well against the Penguins.
The St. Louis Blues can't outscore the Penguins, and the Vancouver Canucks aren't tough enough to take down Pittsburgh. The Detroit Red Wings pose the biggest threat to the Penguins' Cup chances, but they seem to be slowing down in the West.
They've Won Before
Crsoby and Fleury at the victory parade in downtown Pittsburgh in 2009.
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Experience is huge in the playoffs. Many members of the 2009 Stanley Cup winning team are still with the Penguins.
Eight forwards, three defensemen, and the starting goalie played on the 2009 Stanley Cup team. Many of the players know what to expect and the experienced players will be able to ease the nerves of the inexperienced players.
The Penguins are so experienced despite being so young, both of which work to the team's advantage. They know how to stay fresh for a long offseason, and can because of their youth. The Penguins have had two relatively short offseasons, and are ready to take another run at the Stanley Cup this year.