The Penguins know what it takes to win the Cup. They have to get back to that in 2012-13.
With arguably the two best players in the NHL, the Pittsburgh Penguins are consistently included among the Stanley Cup favorites. The Penguins won the cup in 2009, but haven’t sniffed it since, and in order to get back to the promised land, these three things need to change.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are two of the best players in today’s game. Love or hate them, their skills are undeniable. Head coach Dan Bylsma has the Penguins consistently playing on a high level. The Penguins haven’t finished lower than fourth in the Eastern Conference since the 2006-07 season. The Penguins finished fifth that season.
Even more impressive is the Penguins playoff streak—which is currently at six seasons. The last time the Penguins missed the extra season was in 2005-06. They finished last in the conference with 58 points.
Pittsburgh has bowed out of the postseason earlier than many expected the last few seasons, despite having a blueprint for success. Heading into the 2012-13 season, the Penguins need to change these three things in order to get back to the Stanley Cup.
Pressure got the best of Crosby in last season's physical series against Philadelphia.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are the most talented players on the Penguins roster. When the Pens have both pieces on the ice, their offense thrives. But, these two aren’t the only pieces of the puzzle. Talent on defense surrounds Crosby and Malkin. Blue-liners like Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang need to shoulder a bigger load and become bigger focal points of the team.
Crosby’s health is a constant discussion point, but every player in the NHL is one play away from having his career end. To force one or two players to shoulder the load year after year can cause the staleness that has been the Penguins playoffs since 2009.
Penguin fans don’t like to see the Philadelphia Flyers advance further in the playoffs, or even make the playoffs at all. But, the Flyers found a way to break out of the rut that perennial playoff teams can fall into.
Success breeds complacency and no team has been more successful over the last five seasons than the Penguins. They need to find a way to take pressure off Crosby and Malkin in the playoffs, make others the focal point and inevitably break out of their playoff rut.
That is, if you can call six straight years of playoffs a rut.
James Neal set a career high in points last season. He will need to perform to a similar level in 2012-13.
The Penguin scoring hierarchy needs a shake up. Crosby played in less than one-third of the season in 2011-12 and still finished ninth on the team in scoring. With Jordan Staal gone to Carolina, the Penguins need bigger production from Chris Kunitz, James Neal and Pascal Dupuis.
Neal finished second on the team in scoring last season with a career-high 81 points. He surprised the hockey world last season by rebounding from a six-point, 20-game season in 2010-11. Expectations are sky-high for Neal heading into 2012-13. He needs to live up to the new hype.
Kunitz and Dupuis tallied 120 combined points last season. Those numbers aren’t bad, but an increase would be welcomed. The two also combined for 12 points in the Penguins' six-game series against Philadelphia.
These three complimentary offensive players need to rise to bigger roles and bigger production in 2012-13. More consistent offensive production from these three would allow the Penguins to rest Crosby and Malkin throughout the year, leaving them in better shape for the physicality of playoff hockey. Coach Bylsma needs to force larger minutes on these three early in the 2012-13 season to send a message.
Side Note: The Penguins will benefit immensely from the addition of Tomas Vokoun in net. The competition between Vokoun and Marc-Andre Fleury for postseason starts will help the Pens in the playoffs.
The Eastern Conference has earned the reputation over the years of being the more physical conference. The Western Conference was more wide-open skating.
Pittsburgh’s style of play doesn’t fit in the East. There are a few exceptions, obviously. Anyone who says Brooks Orpik isn’t physical needs to watch a game.
Even with some physical players, the Penguins are not a physical team. Their style of play isn’t conducive to a lot of the physicality that gritty teams play. Bylsma’s rotating system uses an aggressive breakout formula. It works with the skill guys he has.
Unfortunately, the Flyers are a more physical team. They demonstrated that in the postseason last year. Pittsburgh tried to play that game and failed.
The Penguins know what it takes to win a Stanley Cup. They did in 2009, with a lot of the same guys they still have. They are a skilled team that effectively uses breakouts and pressure to force those gritty teams into mistakes.
Pittsburgh and Bylsma have to teach the new additions to the team how to play Penguin hockey, not only in the regular season but also in the playoffs, if they want to be successful. The philosophy and strategy is there for the Penguins. They just have to get everyone on board and play their game.
If you can’t beat them, beat them.