Evgeni Malkin may prove to be a huge factor in the Penguins' quest to the Stanley Cup.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are the last team one would expect to exit the Stanley Cup playoffs early for two consecutive years. This year, though, they’re poised to capture hockey’s most prestigious championship.
Last season, the Penguins were heavily favored to win the Stanley Cup. It was shocking to see them get eliminated six games into their series with the Philadelphia Flyers.
But they’ve made some great moves during the offseason. They brought in Brandon Sutter to add some defensive talent to the forward line. The acquisition of Tomas Vokoun also helped address the problems in the goaltending situation.
The 2012 postseason exposed some big weaknesses within the Penguins. Fortunately, they’re already taking steps in the right direction.
Here are five reasons the Penguins will be contenders for the Stanley Cup this season.
The Penguins were upset by the Flyers in Round 1 of the playoffs.
The Penguins have been eliminated in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals for two consecutive seasons. They lost in seven games to the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2011 and were upset by the Philadelphia Flyers in six games in 2012.
Their performance in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs was especially shocking. They finished the regular season just one point behind the Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers and entered the postseason as the fourth-seeded team.
The 2009 Stanley Cup Champions were heavily favored to capture the title again in 2012. However, they ended up exiting early for various reasons.
In their series with the Flyers, they played with no discernible discipline. They scored plenty of goals, but were unable to stop the Flyers from doing the same—exposing their defensive weaknesses in the process.
Their best bet would be to put the past in the past. They can’t let their abysmal performance in the last two postseasons impact their morale.
After all, they’ve made some fantastic moves during the offseason to address their weaknesses. They’re in a great position to not let their recent playoff performance hold them back.
The Penguins welcomed back Crosby with open arms.
The Penguins more than got by without Crosby. Malkin and Neal, just to name two, stepped up to fill in the scoring gap while Crosby was recuperating from his concussion-like symptoms.
And now that Crosby’s back in the lineup, the Penguins’ offense is now as potent as ever.
In the 22 regular season games he played last season, “Sid the Kid” scored eight goals and 29 assists, totaling 37 points. He also notched eight points in the six playoffs games he got to play.
More so than his scoring prowess, his leadership on the ice and in the locker room is an intangible that can’t be overstated.
Crosby isn’t the kind of player that only captures one Stanley Cup. Assuming he doesn’t sustain a head injury that permanently sidelines him, he definitely has what it takes to lead the Penguins to a few more championships.
Malkin showing off his Art Ross Trophy.
No one’s ever doubted Malkin’s abilities. He’s been a force for the Penguins ever since he arrived on the scene in 2006. He’s won the Art Ross Trophy twice and helped lead the Penguins to the Stanley Cup in 2009.
He really stepped up in the absence of Crosby. If he can continue to score at least in the 90-point range with Crosby back full-time, the Penguins could be one of the most feared teams in the NHL.
Malkin will find success no matter where they put him in the lineup. If they choose to put him on the top line with Crosby, then the defense won’t be able to allocate all its pressure on one player. They’d have to split defensive force between Crosby and Malkin, leaving them more able to make plays.
If they’re not on the same line, Malkin will just assure that the second line is just as potent as the first.
Malkin even approaching the scoring pace that earned him the Hart and Art Ross Trophies will be a major factor in the Penguins being legitimate contenders for the Stanley Cup this season.
Fleury actually making a save during their playoff series against the Flyers.
Marc-Andre Fleury was one of the NHL’s most reliable goaltenders throughout the regular season. In 67 games in the crease, he was 42-17-4. He finished with a .913 save percentage and 2.36 goals-against average.
You’d never guess that, in six playoff games, the same netminder would have a meager .834 save percentage and 4.63 GAA.
The Penguins addressed Fleury’s disappointing postseason performance by acquiring Tomas Vokoun from the Washington Capitals during the offseason. This move should help Fleury in a few ways.
Vokoun backing up Fleury should light a fire under him. The threat of losing his role of starting goalie at any time should be more than enough to give Fleury the extra push he needs to reach the next level.
On top of that, Vokoun has No. 1 goaltender talent. He has the potential to be one of the league’s most reliable backup netminders. With such a superb backup, they’re in a much better position to not let Fleury get tired.
Former Hurrican Brandon Sutter.
During the 2012 offseason, the Penguins attempted to lock Jordan Staal into a 10-year contract. When Staal turned down the offer, they shipped him off to the Carolina Hurricanes in return for Brandon Sutter, Brian Dumoulin and a first-round draft pick.
Dumoulin has good potential as a defenseman, but the real benefit from this trade was the acquisition of Sutter.
Sutter will likely be a depth center on the third or fourth line. He is more than capable of producing over 40 points a season. With a team as offensively stacked as the Penguins, Sutter’s value isn’t in his ability to find the back of the net.
Centering the third line with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy on the wings is a perfect fit for Sutter. As a physical and defensive forward, Sutter has a gift for grinding it out with the opposition’s most talented scorers.
The Penguins might even have Sutter play on the penalty kill. He’s a smart player that can read and break up plays.
James Neal, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin’s scoring is important to the success of the team. That is a fact. They’ll never get far in the playoffs, though, without reliable, defensively proficient forwards.