The impressive depth of the Pittsburgh Penguins was on full display in their 3-1 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers in Saturday's season opener, and the team proved that it can be successful without sensational performances from superstar forwards Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby.
Depth is the most important part of any championship-caliber team, especially in a shortened season when players get fatigued easier than normal because of the shortened 48-game schedule played out in just 99 days.
The Penguins struggled defensively against the Flyers in last year's first-round playoff series loss, and this aspect of their game was much improved in Saturday's win.
Special teams were a huge issue for Pittsburgh in the playoffs. The Penguins allowed the Flyers to score on 12 of their 23 power-play opportunities in the six-game series, but were able to kill all five of Philadelphia's power-play chances on Saturday.
Veteran defenseman Paul Martin, who was awful in the playoffs last year, played the kind of shutdown defense that the team expected from him when he was signed to a five-year, $25 million contract in the summer of 2010.
Martin also assisted on two of the Penguins' goals, which was a good sign for head coach Dan Bylsma because he needs his blue to be more productive offensively this season. Three of the four Penguins assists on Saturday were from defensemen.
Pittsburgh's defense as a whole was impressive against the Flyers, and if the team defends well consistently, opposing teams will have real difficulties beating the Penguins in a seven-game series.
As well as the Penguins' blue line played on Saturday, the bottom-six forward group was equally impressive. The third line of Matt Cookie, Brandon Sutter and Tyler Kennedy was excellent, and for Pittsburgh to have success this season, they need three lines playing well offensively.
Sutter was one of the Penguins' best players in his debut with the team and played an important role on the penalty kill. He played with a lot of physicality and was strong on the forecheck. He also set up the team's first goal with a faceoff win in the attacking zone that led to Kennedy's goal off a deflection from a point shot from Martin.
Sutter's performance is very important to the Penguins because he is replacing star center Jordan Staal, who was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes on draft day last year in a deal involving Sutter.
Staal was one of the best defensive forwards in the NHL, and if Sutter can play as well as he did on Saturday for most of the season, Pittsburgh will have the top-nine depth that they need to contend for the Stanley Cup.
Malkin and Crosby played well against the Flyers, but the Penguins won this game because their role players stepped up and took advantage of the opportunities presented to them. The third and fourth-line players played well at both ends of the ice and were responsible for 17 of the team's 30 hits by forwards.
Even though he's too talented to be considered a role player, James Neal proved why he was fully deserving of the big six-year contract he signed last season. The veteran left winger scored a career-high 40 goals last season and scored what would turn out to be the game-winner on Saturday directly off a faceoff win by Malkin in the second period.
Neal will once again be a huge part of the Penguins' success on offense, and if he plays anywhere near the level he did in 2011-12, Pittsburgh will have three superstar forwards for teams to game-plan for each night.
The team's brightest star in the season opener was goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who also made history with his victory.
Big congrats to Marc-Andre Fleury, who has established a franchise record with 227 wins. That's what we call Flower Power!— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) January 19, 2013
Fleury made a number of huge saves in the third period when the Flyers had two power-play opportunities to tie the game. If Fleury plays like the No. 1 goalie he's been since the team drafted him in 2003, the Penguins will be the favorites to win the Stanley Cup.
The 28-year-old goaltender's awful performance against the Flyers in the playoffs last year was a real surprise, but he bounced back in a major way on Saturday.
He's won an average of 37.5 games over the last four years and is one of the most durable goaltenders in the league. Fleury also hasn't played in fewer than 62 games since 2007-08 season.
The Penguins proved that they don't need Malkin and Crosby to carry the team this season in Saturday's victory over the Flyers. With the team's two best players healthy and in the lineup, everyone is able to play their normal role and no one has to do too much.
Nobody is going to beat the Penguins in the playoffs with Fleury playing like a star because the Pittsburgh offense is going to score goals consistently. The team finished first in goals scored a year ago and should lead that category again with Crosby and Malkin both healthy.
A lot of fans and journalists picked the Penguins to win the Stanley Cup before the season started, and they proved why people like their chances of winning another championship with Saturday's performance.
General manager Ray Shero has built a deep roster with the right balance of offense and defense at forward and on the blue line.
The Penguins came into this season with a lot to prove and made a statement to the rest of the NHL with a great performance against the Flyers to start the year.
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