The Penguins have been looking like a Stanley Cup contender all year: They had an 11 game win-streak earlier this season; Neal was the first winger on the Pens to hit 40 goals since Jagr and Kovalev did it in 2000-2001 and Evgeni Malkin is a point scoring machine.
The team is finally healthy and they are ready for the playoffs. With a recent tension-filled loss to the Flyers, the Pens need to bounce back and get ready for a very physical game in the playoffs. In order for the Pens to make a solid run at the Cup this year, there are five key things they need to do.
Although Letang might be flying under the radar for NHL fans, Pittsburgh fans know he is the glue that keeps the Penguins together. If he wasn't injured for the greater part of March, many would be watching a Norris Trophy candidate.
While the Penguins won without a concussed Crosby, they could not manage to win big without Letang. Letang is unparalleled on the Pens for being an offensive defenseman. He is great on the powerplay and without him, the PP rarely converts. Letang's speed also does not allow for breakaways. He skates hard and never leaves Marc-Andre Fleury out to dry.
It is very likely that the Penguins will be playing the Flyers in the first round of the playoffs as the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds. The Pens have had a really rough time with the Flyers this whole season. The Flyers are a very physical team, and they get under the players' skin. What results from this is unnecessary penalties and sometimes coaches yelling at each other while standing on the boards.
The Flyers have won every game in the Penguins' new Consol Energy Center arena. The Pens have won one-of-four games against the Flyers this season. In order to make a deep playoff run, the Pens need to pick it up and win against the Flyers. To do this the Pens need to stick to their game and not get caught up in the emotions from the rivalry.
The Penguins powerplay has been hit or miss this year. They were starting to get a flow going right before Crosby came back from injury. Crosby got stuck back into the powerplay (I mean, how could he not?), but he is playing at the point instead of the right side on the circle.
The issues on the powerplay come when Crosby and Malkin get in each other's space. They both see the same openings and tend to skate to the right side of the circle. The Pens have been fixing this problem, and they converted three power-play goals against the Bruins earlier this week.
The only other concern with the powerplay is that the 'dream team' is out for too long on the PP, and they are not as effective when they get tired.
If the Penguins don't convert on their PP with some of the best players in the league, they will not get far in the playoffs. On the upside, their powerplay looked so good against the Bruins, it is hard to imagine it will be much of a problem.
Some of the league's major goal scorers are in the Eastern Conference and will no doubt take on the Pens at some point in the playoffs. The Pens need to make sure their d-men and Marc-Andre Fleury do not allow for a shooting spree from these league superstars.
Zbynek Michalek needs to step up his game (right now he is sitting at a -4 +/-) while Letang and Orpik are both over +15. Defense needs to be consistent for the various lines so opposing players don't get openings to score.
Marc-Andre Fleury has proven to be a huge asset for the Penguins in the playoffs. His save percentage for the playoffs has been .89 and above since 2007's postseason. He is consistent and impressive in the net.
However, when Fleury heads out to play the puck in the trapezoid, Pittsburgh fans should hold their breath. In my opinion, Fleury's main weakness is his mistakes made outside the net in the trapezoid. He wants to make plays and help out the team, but we have seen turnovers for goals far too often. One of these notable mistakes was during the 2011 Winter Classic against the Capitals when Eric Fehr scored on a scrambling Fleury.
If Fleury stays in the net and remains healthy and consistent as we expect, the Pens will have a chance to contend for the cup. If Brent Johnson has to step in and goal-tend for the Penguins there is a high potential for disaster.