After three disappointing playoff exits since their Stanley Cup championship in 2009, it's championship or bust in Pittsburgh this season.
Two consecutive first-round losses were tough to take for Penguins fans, but optimism is high heading into 2012-13 because both Crosby and Malkin will enter the new season fully healthy.
Let's examine why the two Penguins' megastars will be under immense pressure to shine next year.
Health, Roster Changes
Concerns about Malkin's ability to be the same player he once was before his season-ending knee injury in 2010 were erased last year when he dominated the league en route to his second Art Ross and first Hart Trophy of his career.
Malkin's goalscoring was sensational as he reached the 50-goal plateau for the first time in his career. The Russian star scored or assisted on 109 of the team's 273 goals (39.9 percent) last season, which is a lot for one player on a team with so much offensive talent. He scored 63 goals over the past two seasons combined.
Malkin will be under pressure to maintain this level of scoring because the Penguins cannot count on James Neal to hit the 40-goal mark again, even though it's possible. It's also quite possible that players such as Pascal Dupuis won't perform to the level they did offensively last season.
Pittsburgh's loss of Jordan Staal this summer via trade will also impact the offense in a profound way. Staal will likely be replaced by young center Brandon Sutter (who was part of the trade); however, it's unlikely that Sutter matches Staal's 25-goal output from last season, which means Malkin and Crosby will have to pick up the slack.
If Crosby were to miss significant time at any point in the season because of injury, Malkin would be counted on to again play at an unbelievable level for long stretches. This is a lot to ask, even for a guy as talented as Malkin. He was able to carry the team's offense without Crobsy for most of last year, but having to do that two years in a row would be incredibly difficult.
Although, if there's anyone in the league who can replace a lot of the offensive production Crosby provides, it's Malkin.
Injuries and the Penguins' reliance on several role players will put a lot of pressure on Malkin and Crosby to be point-per-game players next season.
During the Flyers series, Malkin and Crosby both had three goals and five assists in six games. However, they were a combined minus-4 and had zero game-winning goals.
They need to be better in the playoffs next year for the Penguins to advance all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. An improved effort from the defense and goaltenders will also be required, but at the same time, Malkin and Crosby will need to play at Conn Smythe levels to help Pittsburgh win close games.
Your best players are expected to dominate when the pressure rises, and this will be the situation that Crosby and Malkin will find themselves in next season.
Determining the Penguins' championship window is difficult since Malkin is entering the second to last year of his current contract, and the future of the team's success on the blue line will depend on the development of several talented young prospects.
Since both of the Penguins' best players are healthy and the team's depth is strong, unless injuries play a key role in their success, Pittsburgh will have no excuses if they don't make the Stanley Cup Final next year.
With expectations as high as possible, it will be up to Crosby and Malkin to deliver a second Stanley Cup title to Pittsburgh since the 2004-05 lockout.
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