What Pittsburgh Penguins Must Do to Hit Their Stride Going into the Playoffs

Michael Prunka@MichaelPrunkaCorrespondent IApril 21, 2013

Dupuis and company celebrate a goal.
Dupuis and company celebrate a goal.Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Not only are the Pittsburgh Penguins playoff bound, but their 3-2 win over the Boston Bruins was enough to clinch the top seed in the Eastern Conference. The Penguins are in great shape, but injuries, among other things, are holding them back from hitting their stride.

The Penguins clinched the conference despite injuries to four of the team’s top players—Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Paul Martin and captain Sidney Crosby. Trade acquisitions like Jussi Jokinen, Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla have helped offset the missing star power, though.

Crosby, Malkin and Neal are all major reasons for the Penguins’ offensive feats. Despite not having played since March 22, Crosby still leads the team with 56 points. Malkin, too, was steadily chipping in prior to his injury, with 29 points in the 28 games he’s played.

Neal is one of the major contributors on the power play. He’s second on the team with eight power-play goals and led the league in scoring with a man up last season. Pittsburgh’s 24.2 power-play conversion rate is good for second in the NHL. Having Neal back to help the man-advantage squad is important for the postseason because playoff games are often decided by special teams.

With Malkin, Neal and Crosby back in the lineup, players like Jokinen and Morrow will be shifted down to the bottom six. As well as they’ve performed as top-six forwards, they’ll add plenty of scoring depth to the bottom lines, which will be tough to match.

The Penguins cannot necessarily help when their top players will return from injury. What they do have power over is the momentum they take into the playoffs.

Pittsburgh boasts a six-game win streak as it heads into its final four games of the season. The Ottawa Senators are the only team of those four currently in playoff contention.

The Senators have some of the NHL’s best defense and goaltending. They rank second in the NHL with 2.1 goals against per game. Combine that with their almost 88 percent penalty-kill percentage, and the Penguins may have trouble scoring.

If the Penguins can overcome Ottawa’s defense, even in the absence of some of their best scorers, they’ll be in position to finish the season in a dominant fashion. After the Senators, their final games are home against the Buffalo Sabres, a road game versus the New Jersey Devils and a final home game against the Carolina Hurricanes.

With a relatively easy schedule to close out the season, there’s no reason the Penguins cannot take a 10-game win streak into the postseason.

If they can get their stars back in the lineup, the Penguins will be difficult to stop. The Penguins have always been strong on offense, but recent additions make them a force to be feared. They’ve also become grittier and tougher, which will come in handy in the playoffs.

If the Penguins continue to build momentum, they’ll hit their stride and will be on a warpath for the Stanley Cup.

Michael Prunka is a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist. Stay up to date with him by liking his Facebook page and following him on Twitter.