5 Burning Questions the Pittsburgh Penguins Must Answer Early in 2013 Season
Even with a huge 2-0 start, there are still plenty of questions surrounding the Penguins.
The changes to their power play seem to be working, but it remains to be seen if they’ll work in the long run.
Also, defenseman Paul Martin and the team’s defensive depth are still very much in question. Martin’s abysmal performance in the 2012 playoffs contributed to the Penguins’ early exit. Can he turn things around this season?
Those are only a few of them—here are five burning questions the Penguins have to answer in the 2013 season.
Can Paul Martin Be a Top-Tier Defenseman?
One of the biggest questions heading into the season was how Paul Martin would perform. He was awful during the Penguins’ six postseason games in 2011-12, but it seems he’s come around.
The 31-year-old blueliner is relied upon to shut down the opposition’s offense and that’s exactly what he did against both the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers.
Martin’s board play was great and he even forced a few turnovers between those games.
Martin contributed on the offensive side of the ice, too. He had the primary assist on Tyler Kennedy’s first-period power-play goal and also assisted on Chris Kunitz’s empty-netter at the end of the third period.
What Can the Team Expect of Brandon Sutter?
If the first two games are any indication, Brandon Sutter is a go-to guy for winning faceoffs. Early in the first period against the Flyers, Sutter won the faceoff that set up Tyler Kennedy's deflection goal.
He might not get on the scoresheet for the goals scored by his line, but his big faceoff wins will be integral to his linemates finding the back of the net.
It was up in the air whether or not Sutter would see much time on the power play. Now that he’s proven his ability to win key faceoffs, especially on the power play, his place on the unit shouldn’t be in question anymore.
Other than winning faceoffs, Sutter can be expected to defend the Penguins’ zone well. He had a few defensive-zone takeaways between the two road games the Penguins played on opening weekend.
How Long Until the Chemistry Is Truly There?
A huge concern for each NHL club is how long it will take for lines to develop chemistry again. Between almost eight months away from the NHL, the short training camp and no preseason games, players haven’t played much with their linemates.
That hasn’t proved to be too big a problem for the Penguins.
It doesn’t seem like the pairing of Evgeni Malkin and James Neal has missed a beat. The two, along with Eric Tangradi, continue to be one of the NHL’s biggest offensive threats.
The Penguins also experimented with a line consisting of Malkin, Neal and Crosby Sunday against the Rangers. Once they get the opportunity to skate together more, this trio could be a big source of offensive production.
All things considered, the Penguins seem to be ahead of the curve as far as line chemistry is concerned. They'll be even more dangerous once things totally click.
What Can Be Expected from the Special Teams?
Special teams were a staple for Pittsburgh in 2011-12. It was among the NHL’s best on both the power play and penalty kill. Effective special teams will be even more important during this abbreviated season.
The Penguins are off to a great start, as they converted on four of their eight power-play opportunities on opening weekend.
James Neal, who led the NHL in power-play goals in 2011-12, now plays point with Kris Letang on the power play. This doesn’t seem to have had an adverse effect on his production—he notched a power-play goal 1:48 into Sunday evening's game against the Rangers.
Their penalty killing squad has been even more impressive. They managed to kill off all five opportunities the Flyers had and three of four against the Rangers.
Discipline is a major factor early in this short season. Players that haven’t played much since last season are bound to make some mistakes and being able to take advantage of those mistakes will be a difference-maker for the next few weeks.
Who’s the True Starting Goaltender?
That could be a trick question.
This season will see every team play 48 games in 99 days. With such a condensed schedule, every team will have to play plenty of back-to-back games.
Teams like the Penguins have a distinct advantage. Both Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun are capable of being starting netminders. When the Penguins play stretches of games without much downtime, they’ll be able to alternate starters in goal.
They took this approach on opening weekend. Fleury started Saturday in Philly and finished with 26 saves. When the Penguins traveled to New York Sunday to take on the Rangers, Vokoun manned the net and stopped 31 shots.
Barring injury, chances are Fleury will get the majority of the workload. It won’t be by a large margin, though. Expect Vokoun to start around 20 of this season’s 48 games.