Having clinched the Atlantic Division, the Pittsburgh Penguins are guaranteed a 2013 playoff berth. They’re Stanley Cup favorites heading into the postseason; they proved last year being favored isn’t enough.
A surging 2012 Penguins team was sent packing by the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the playoffs last year. Inconsistent defense and goaltending were the culprit of the Penguins’ poor performance.
For the Penguins to last in the postseason, they will need to learn from those mistakes.
The netminding tandem of Marc-Andre Fleury and newcomer Tomas Vokoun has been outstanding. Both have admirable save percentages throughout the season—Fleury with .919 and Vokoun with .912.
In addition, having Vokoun allows Fleury to enter the playoffs with less fatigue. After starting 64 games in 2011-12, fatigue was a major factor in Fleury’s .834 save percentage in his team’s early exit. Vokoun taking pressure off Fleury should make a difference this year.
The Penguins’ defensive corps has shaped up, too. Paul Martin, whose performance was horrendous in the tail-end of the 2011-12 regular season and during the playoffs, has come full circle. He’s fulfilled his role as a top shutdown defenseman while also chipping in offensively.
As the trade deadline approached, general manager Ray Shero made a move to acquire Douglas Murray from the San Jose Sharks. The rugged, 245-pound defenseman adds tons of grit and strength to the team’s lineup. He’s not as quick as other Penguins defensemen, but he’s not supposed to be.
Brenden Morrow was another trade acquisition. In addition to adding further scoring prowess, Morrow is a rather gritty forward who won’t shy away from the physical aspects of the game. He’s playing on the second line now, but will likely return to the third line when Sidney Crosby comes back.
The added grit in the lineup will be valuable in the playoffs. When playing a seven-game series, wearing the opposition down is key to long-term success.
The Penguins continue to be a scoring force in the NHL. Their 3.29 goals per game is good enough for best in the game. But, with the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and others, the Penguins haven’t struggled much with scoring.
They might be an even stronger offensive force this year. When playing alongside Crosby, Chris Kunitz has a knack for finding twine. Before Crosby was sidelined with jaw injury, Kunitz was in the race for the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy. Combine that with the addition of Jarome Iginla and shooters in Pittsburgh are something to be feared.
They were able to score like a championship team last year. It’s the improved defense, goaltending and grittiness that have made the Penguins a better-rounded playoff team this time around.
The final reason the Penguins are favorites to win the Stanley Cup is because of the leadership they have in the locker room. An important intangible, good leadership can make the difference in the postseason. With Sidney Crosby captaining the team and the veteran leadership experience between Iginla and Morrow, the Penguins are in good shape.
Iginla and Morrow’s desire to win their first Stanley Cup could also be a big driving force in the Penguins’ postseason success. They’re 35 and 34 years old, respectively. At this stage in their careers, they’re playing for a championship-caliber team, and they’re not going to let the opportunity slip by.
With the playoffs just around the corner, the biggest thing holding the Penguins back is all their injuries. Crosby and Neal are out indefinitely, and Martin could be back by the first round of the playoffs.
Even without Crosby, the Penguins have maintained their spot atop the Eastern Conference. However, they’ll need all their guns ready to go in order to have a successful Stanley Cup campaign.
Once the Penguins overcome their injuries, they’ll be almost unstoppable. They have the offensive firepower, the talent at the blue line and in net, as well as all the intangibles that are vital in championship runs.