Update: How the 5 Most Important Pittsburgh Penguins Have Peformed In Round 1
USA TODAY Sports
Preview before Game 1: After a flurry of trade-deadline deals, the Pittsburgh Penguins enter the 2013 NHL playoffs looking to end a three-year streak of postseason disappointment and win the Stanley Cup.
While lofty expectations are nothing new to the Penguins, the impending free agency of top players like Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Pascal Dupuis this year and Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz and Kris Letang next year has created a sense of urgency among Penguins players and management.
If the Penguins are to eliminate the New York Islanders in their first-round matchup and advance beyond the quarterfinal round of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2010, they will need contributions from everyone, but especially from these top five Penguins.
Update after Game 4: The Penguins got off to a fast start by shutting out the Islanders in Game 1 and jumping out to a 3-1 lead in Game 2. Unfortunately, the Penguins have proven incapable of holding leads and have twice blown 2-goal leads enroute to a 2-2 series tie.
5. Jarome Iginla
Jarome Iginla in his Penguins debut against Islanders
Preview before Game 1: After watching the playoffs from home for the past three years, Iginla enters this year's playoffs as perhaps the most motivated player on the Penguins' roster.
Since leading the Calgary Flames to Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Iginla has not advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs despite averaging a point per game in the playoffs from 2005 to 2009.
Acquired by Ray Shero to fill the same role that Bill Guerin and Gary Roberts played on previous Penguins teams, Iginla will be counted on to provide veteran leadership and a strong net front presence against the smaller Islanders defensemen.
Update after Game 4: Iginla has shown flashes at times and has made big contributions playing the point on the powerplay. Through 4 games, Iginla has 1 goal and 6 assists but is -2 and has been quiet in even-strength play.
4. James Neal
James Neal scores versus Islanders.
Preview before Game 1: After struggling during his first playoff run with the Penguins in 2011, James Neal will look to build on his promising 2012 postseason performance.
Having established himself as one of the top goal scorers in the NHL, Neal's presence alongside Malkin and Chris Kunitz gives the Penguins a dominant second line, something they have not had in recent playoff runs and will need against the New York Islanders.
If the Penguins are to advance past the first round, Neal will need to show the same offensive touch against the Islanders in the playoffs that he has shown against them during the regular season (three goals and three assists in five games).
Update after Game 4: Neal was injured in Game 1 and missed Game 2 and 3 before returning for Game 4 and scored the Penguins first goal of the game. Neal figures to make an impact playing alongside of Evgeni Malkin who is leading the Penguins in scoring thus far in the playoffs.
3. Evgeni Malkin
Evgeni Malkin drives to the net against Islanders.
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Preview before Game 1: If the Penguins are to defeat the Islanders and advance past the first round, Evgeni Malkin must be one of the best players on the ice.
Despite having a down year by his standards, Malkin has shown the ability to take over not only a period or a game but also a series when he wants to. Unfortunately, he's also shown a tendency to allow opponents to get under his skin and get him off his game, which the Islanders will no doubt try to do.
Although he has not had much success against the Islanders this season (no goals and only one assist in three games), Malkin will be counted on to lead the way for the Penguins, especially with Sidney Crosby still sidelined due to injury.
Update after Game 4: Evgeni Malkin leads the team with 8 points (2 goals and 6 assists) through the first four games of the playoffs. More importantly, Malkin has repeatedly done the most damage immediately following Islanders' goals.
2. Sidney Crosby
Sidney Crosby scores goal in return against Islanders.
Preview before Game 1: Despite being sidelined with a broken jaw suffered against the Islanders, Crosby is playing at an MVP level and once again seems ready to lead the Penguins to the Stanley Cup.
Crosby has had success against the Islanders this season (nine assists in nine games) and figures to benefit from the recent acquisition of Iginla, a prototypical power forward who has brought goal-scoring ability and a physical presence to the Penguins.
Having been denied the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL scoring leader by an injury, Crosby will be well rested and highly motivated to return to action against the Islanders as he did in memorable fashion on November 21, 2011 when he scored his first goal after being sidelined for 11 months with concussion symptoms.
Update after Game 4: Crosby missed Game 1 while recovering from a broken jaw and has tallied 2 goals and 4 assists and, along with Evgeni Malkin, is averaging 2 points a game. As the rest of the Penguins have, Crosby has struggled at even strength and is -3.
1. Marc-Andre Fleury
Marc-Andre Fleury save vs. Islanders.
Preview before Game 1: Without a doubt the most important Penguin player will be Marc-Andre Fleury who is looking to erase the memory of last year's nightmarish series against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Having allowed 30 goals in 6 games against the Flyers, Fleury will be looking to make amends and guide the Penguins past the first round for the first time since the 2010 playoffs. With a shortened NHL season due to the lockout and the support of Tomas Vokoun who gives the Penguins a credible backup, something they have not had since Ty Conklin left after the 2008 season, Fleury will enter the playoffs well rested and at the top of his game.
Coming off of a strong regular season, Marc-Andre Fleury seems to be in prime position to return to the form he showed during the Penguins march to the Stanley Cup in 2009.
Update after Game 4: After shutting out the Islanders in Game 1 by a score of 5-0, Marc-Andre Fleury surrendered 14 goals during the next 3 games. As a result, Fleury will replaced in net by Tomas Vokoun in Game 5.