Pittsburgh Penguins: 5 Keys to Hoisting the Cup in 2013
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
After 113 days of a grueling lockout, hockey is finally back!
NHL fans everywhere rejoiced when the news was finally broken early Sunday morning and now it's time to talk business and let the boys play.
Even in this strike-shortened season, the Pittsburgh Penguins are one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup in 2013, but there are many key facets of the game they will need to perfect in order to do so.
Here are the five keys for the Pens in order to once again hoist the cup:
1. Continued Dominance from Evgeni Malkin
Harry How/Getty Images
Last year, Evgeni Malkin was without a doubt the MVP of the NHL.
His 109 points were 12 more than the closest scorer and he was the only player not named Steven Stamkos to eclipse the 50-goal mark. With Crosby out most of the season, Geno assumed the role of team leader and will need to continue his dominance if the Pens want any shot at being successful.
During the lockout, Malkin has been in Russia playing for the Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the KHL where he racked up 65 points in 37 games, giving him an unheard-of 1.76 points per game. The talent in the NHL will, without a doubt, give Malkin more trouble than its Kontinental counterparts, but it's good to see that he hasn't lost his scoring touch during the lockout.
2. A Healthy Sidney Crosby
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Sidney Crosby is finally 100 percent and the work stoppage might have actually helped him make a full recovery. However, the question begs to be asked whether he can stay healthy for even a shortened 48-game season.
Although he played in the six playoff games last year, it was obvious that Sid wasn't hitting his full potential at year's end in spite of his eight points in those six games.
A healthy Crosby will add even more firepower to a Penguins offense that is already loaded and will be needed to stay with their division rivals, especially the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers.
If Crosby plays to his full potential and stays healthy, the Pens should have no problem being a top seed come playoff time.
3. A Rebound Year from Marc-Andre Fleury
I was at this game, and this video still gives me chills.
Marc-Andre Fleury was one of the main reasons the Penguins won the Stanley Cup back in 2009, when he had a very respectable .908 save-percentage and 2.61 goals against average.
However, you would have thought he forgot to pack his talent with him to the playoffs last year. His save percentage dropped under 84 percent and he gave up nearly five goals per game and was one of the main reasons the Pens failed to get out of the first round.
His regular season numbers last year really weren't terrible though, as he was second in the NHL with 42 wins and amongst the top half of goaltenders with a 2.36 goals against average. There were times though where it seemed Head Coach Dan Bylsma could have hung a skate lace from the crossbar and had better luck stopping the puck.
Fleury will have to be on top of his game if the Pens want to have any shot at Lord Stanley in 2013.
4. Shutting Down Division Rivals
Nick Laham/Getty Images
I touched on it in the last slide, but the truth is that the Penguins play in the most difficult division in the NHL. The four teams with the most points in the Eastern Conference last year were all in the Atlantic Division (NYR - 109; PIT - 108; PHI - 103; NYD - 102) and all three will continue to be tough competition for the Pens in 2013.
There is no doubt the Penguins will be able to score, but stopping an escalated Rangers offense with the addition of Rick Nash, a dynamic Flyers force with MVP candidate Claude Giroux and the balanced attack of the Devils is going to be very difficult.
The 2013 schedule is yet to be released, but it will most likely feature an extensive amount of games against division rivals to reduce travel and squeeze in more contests. There is a good chance that the four aforementioned teams will all make the playoffs again, so figuring out their division rivals will be crucial for the Pens come puck drop.
5. Paul Martin Playing to His Potential
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
Paul Martin was god-awful last year. I know it, you know it, everyone knows it. Now take into account that the Pens paid him $5.5 million last year, and that alone makes every Pens fan cringe.
Martin was never known for his offensive ability but, when he was signed I'm sure the front office thought he would help in the maturation of some of the younger defenseman and be a complement to Kris Letang's offensive ability, neither of which came to fruition.
The Pens lack depth on the blue line and he will more than likely be the one on the ice having to shut down players like Giroux, Nash, and Ilya Kovalchuk. All of the defensemen in black and gold will have to be better this year, but the most pressure is on the shoulders of the 6'1, 200 lb defenseman from Minneapolis.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
The Penguins are going to be a favorite for the Stanley Cup this year, but there are many keys to them making it back to the Finals for the third time in six years. They have arguably the best two players in the world in Crosby and Malkin up front, so scoring won't be an issue this year. The toughest challenge the Penguins face is whether or not they can stop the puck, from Marc-Andre Fleury on out.
I'm thankful that the lockout has finally reached an end and we can finally get back to talking about hockey. Drop the puck!