Setting Expectations for Pittsburgh Penguins Stars During 2013 Postseason

Michael PrunkaCorrespondent IApril 25, 2013

Setting Expectations for Pittsburgh Penguins Stars During 2013 Postseason

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    The Pittsburgh Penguins have clinched the top seed in the Eastern Conference, earning them home ice in the playoffs. They boast incredible depth, but their stars will need to shine for the Penguins to have a successful Stanley Cup campaign.

    Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury make up the team’s core group of superstars. General manager Ray Shero went all in to add the likes of Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla to the mix, too.

    As usual, there are high postseason expectations for the Penguins. Let’s break down what to expect from each of Pittsburgh’s all-stars.

Marc-Andre Fleury

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    You can’t win the Stanley Cup without an All-Star goaltender.

    Marc-Andre Fleury was a major reason the Penguins failed to make it past the first round last year. Poor defense in front of Fleury was an issue, but it’s hard to overlook his .834 save percentage.

    The Penguins won’t make it far without Fleury playing his best. The two times Fleury’s postseason save percentage surpassed .900 are also the two times the Penguins made it to the Stanley Cup finals with him in net.

    Expect Fleury to deliver this year. A condensed, 48-game season can be a challenge for netminders. Having Tomas Vokoun as a backup has been a luxury for Fleury and the Penguins because it takes some of the pressure off Fleury. He should be less fatigued heading into this year’s playoffs than he has been in the past.

    Fleury’s save percentage and goals-against average this season have both been better than his career averages. If Fleury can continue to rise to the occasion, he could hoist his second Stanley Cup.

Paul Martin

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    Paul Martin is in the same boat as Fleury in that his abysmal performance contributed to the Penguins’ short-lived Stanley Cup aspirations last season.

    Martin is currently out with a hand injury, but this season has been a complete turnaround from last year. He ranks first among defensemen with 14 takeaways in 33 games, and second-best in terms of minimizing giveaways.

    He’s also surprised with his offensive contributions. Despite playing on the same team as offensive defenseman superstar Kris Letang, Martin leads Penguins defensemen in goal scoring with six goals. He’s also chipped in plenty of helpers, totaling 21 points.

    Martin’s scoring is surely pleasing coach Dan Bylsma and company, but he’s earning his $5 million paycheck by excelling as a shutdown defenseman. Come playoffs, that will prove to be his true value.

    Along with newcomer Douglas Murray, expect Martin to hold the blue line. He’ll halt the opposition as it enters the Penguins’ zone. He’ll score some, but as last year proved, the Penguins need to play better defense to succeed in the postseason.

Brenden Morrow

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    Brenden Morrow was acquired from the Dallas Stars not only to add to the Penguins’ already-impressive scoring depth, but also to add much-needed grittiness.

    In the absence of Crosby, Malkin and Neal, Morrow has found among the top-six forwards. In turn, he’s been playing more minutes and has had more opportunities to score. His back-to-back two-goal games against Florida on April 13 and Montreal on April 17 have more than helped pick up the scoring slack.

    If Neal, Malkin and Crosby are all healthy for the playoffs, don’t expect many more multi-goal games from Morrow. Rather, expect him to play a hard-hitting and gritty game that will wear down the opposition throughout the series.

Chris Kunitz

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    At one point, Chris Kunitz was a favorite to win the Maurice Richard Trophy. With Crosby centering him, Kunitz was putting the puck in the net at an amazing pace.

    Then Crosby got injured.

    Well, Crosby is expected to return for the playoffs. Even with the trade acquisitions, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Kunitz, Crosby and Pascal Dupuis reunited.

    That said, expect Kunitz to be a goal scoring force come playoffs. Crosby, Kunitz and Dupuis have chemistry unmatched by any other line in the NHL.

    Between the added depth that Morrow, Iginla and Jokinen bring and the Penguins’ desire to keep healthy, Kunitz may not see as much ice time as he did earlier in the season.

    Even so, he’ll be lighting the lamp as the Penguins make a run for the Stanley Cup.

Kris Letang

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    Kris Letang is an impact player that can make a difference in the playoffs. This season, he’s averaging almost an assist per game. His speed, passing and sight make him one of the best playmakers on the team.

    The Penguins will always look to Letang for offensive production from the blue line, but they’ll need him to perform well in both ends. After all, they don’t have a shortage of offensive talent. Letang’s playing nearly 26 minutes a game so they need to be able to rely on him for sound defense, too.

    Expect Letang’s production to taper off, but not as much as it has in past playoff campaigns. When the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009, Letang had 13 points in 23 games. With so much offensive talent on the team, Letang will be jumping on opportunities to create plays.

    He won’t be a point per game because he’ll likely opt not to jump into the play as much as he normally does.

    Unless, of course, the Penguins are on the power play. Letang can’t resist jumping in to launch his patented one-timer slap shot.

James Neal

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    Of all the superstars on the Penguins’ roster, James Neal is the most dangerous on the man advantage. He led the league in power-play goals last season. This season, eight of his 18 goals have come on the power play.

    Special teams are vital in the playoffs. Even with Neal out with a concussion, the Penguins have consistently had among the NHL’s best power-play units. With him back in the lineup in the postseason, he’ll make the squad even more potent.

    Expect Neal to make an impact on the power play. Beyond that, he’ll continue to be an offensive threat in general.

    His tandem with Evgeni Malkin was one of the league’s best last season. On top of scoring, the two of them are known for being a hard-hitting pair. That will prove useful in wearing down opponents throughout a playoff series.

Jarome Iginla

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    The Penguins will be getting more than just scoring out of veteran Jarome Iginla.

    Since 1996, Iginla has been involved in only six Stanley Cup campaigns. Five of those six times, the Flames were eliminated in the first round. He did come close, though—the Flames came within a game of winning the Cup, but were defeated by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

    At 35 years old, Iginla doesn’t have many years left in him. Now that he’s on a contending team, he’s not going to squander the opportunity.

    Another important intangible Iginla brings to the Penguins is leadership. Crosby has proven to be a great leader for the team, but Iginla’s veteran experience and years as captain of the Flames will be important in guiding the Penguins through the postseason.

    Expect Iginla not only to play at his absolute best, but also expect him to bring out the best in everyone around him.

    There’s a good chance he plays with Malkin and Neal. That line has built great chemistry quickly. Also, Iginla will be a good veteran complement to the two young studs. 

Evgeni Malkin

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    Evgeni Malkin is an amazing player, but he reaches a whole new level around playoff time. And that’s saying something considering he totaled 109 points and won the Art Ross and Hart trophies last season.

    In Malkin’s 68 career playoff games, he’s accumulated 81 points. When the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009, he finished the campaign with 36 points and was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP.

    Don’t expect Malkin’s playoff dominance to change. If anything, he might end up with fewer goals and more assists. After all, only eight of Malkin’s 30 points this season are goals.

    With goal scorers like Iginla and Neal on the wings, Malkin has plenty of opportunities to showcase his playmaking talents. 

Sidney Crosby

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    If Evgeni Malkin is dominant in the playoffs, what do we call Crosby? Well, he’s proving to be dominant at all times. That much is true.

    By the end of the season, Crosby will finish among the best in terms of scoring. Despite only playing 36 games, Crosby has 56 points—a scoring lead that wasn’t surpassed until Martin St. Louis’ April 24 hat trick propelled him ahead.

    After missing the last 12 games of the season, there’s a strong chance Crosby will be ready to go for Game 1 of the playoffs—a bad sign for the other 15 teams competing for the Stanley Cup.

     

    Great news Penguins Fans, looks like both Crosby and Paul Martin will be ready for Game 1 of the playoffs.

    — Josh Rimer (@JoshRimerHockey) April 25, 2013

     

    In the same number of playoff games as Malkin, Crosby has nine more points—a total of 90 points in 68 postseason games.

    Expect Crosby to do everything he can to win his second Cup. First off, there’s his leadership factor. When Crosby’s firing on all cylinders, so are the Penguins. He makes everyone else on the team step up.

    He’ll score. It doesn’t matter if he’s putting the puck in the net or creating the play that does it—Crosby has a knack for bulging twine one way or another.

    Everyone has come to expect leadership and scoring of Crosby. The major difference between his game now and his game before—even as recent as last year’s playoffs—is his emergence as a two-way player. Crosby’s defensive play has tightened up noticeably. He’s doing everything from backchecking to fighting for pucks along the boards.

    More so than ever before, one can’t assume Crosby is a threat on only one end of the ice.

     

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