5 Troubling Trends for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2013-14

Steve Rodenbaugh@rodeyslContributor IIIDecember 12, 2013

5 Troubling Trends for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2013-14

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    Currently sitting atop the Metropolitan Division and battling the Boston Bruins for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, the Pittsburgh Penguins are once again off to a fast start this season. 

    While the standings would indicate that the Pens are right where they need to be, there are some underlying issues that must be resolved if they are make a deep run into the postseason, as they did last year, instead of bowing out in the first round, as they did the previous two years.

    As they look to add to their divisional lead, let's take a look at five troubling trends for the Pens so far in the 2013-14 season.

Inability to Rally

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    While NHL coaches and commentators always stress the importance getting the first goal of the game, the ability to come from behind is an important quality for a team to have in the regular season and becomes even more important in the postseason.

    While the 2013-14 Penguins have shown a lot of positive qualities, the ability to consistently come from behind has not been one of them.

    Although the Pens are an impressive 17-2-0 when scoring first—second only to the Colorado Avalanche, who are undefeated this season when holding a 1-0 lead—they are only 4-8-1 when giving up the first goal, middle of the pack among the rest of the league.

    With a potential playoff opponent and bitter rival in the Boston Bruins (7-5-1) having the third-best record in the NHL when surrendering the first goal, the Pens must improve in this area if they are to not only win their division but get past the reigning Eastern Conference champions should they meet in the playoffs again.

Too Much Reliance on the Power Play

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    While a dominant power play can carry a team through the regular season, it can also mask a team's even-strength shortcomings, which are usually exposed in the postseason where referees have a tendency to swallow their whistles, especially late in games.

    That certainly was the case for the Penguins last season when, despite finishing second in power-play goals during the regular season and first during the postseason, they struggled at times in the playoffs at even strength and surrendered more goals (33) than they scored (32) playing five-on-five. 

    So far this season, the Pens lead the league in power-play percentage (26.1) but have only scored six more goals (60) than their opponents at even strength (54).

    Given that each of the last five Stanley Cup winners have led all playoff teams in even-strength goals per game, it's clear that the Pens must become a better five-on-five team if they hope to bring the Stanley Cup back to Pittsburgh this year.

Struggles in Close Games

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    Blessed with a talent-laden roster that includes two former MVPs and scoring leaders in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, a 40-goal scorer in James Neal and a Norris Trophy candidate in Kris Letang, the Penguins have enjoyed their share of blowout wins this season and have an NHL-best 10 wins by three goals or more.

    Unfortunately, with a record of just 8-6-1 in one-goal games, they haven't shown an ability to consistently win the close games thus far this season, and that doesn't bode well for their postseason chances.

    While some of their struggles in close games can be attributed to injuries to their top-four defensemen, three of whom are still out with injuries, both the younger players as well as the veterans must do a better job of eliminating turnovers, blocking shots and playing smart situational hockey.

    As the Pens have found out the hard way in recent years, these are things that determine one-goal games, especially in the postseason where blowouts are few and far between.

Fleury's Fatigue

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    While much has been made of Marc Andre-Fleury's postseason struggles over the past few seasons, the role that fatigue has played in those struggles has been largely ignored.

    Although Fleury's detractors would be quick to point out that last season's first-round benching came after a strike-shortened 48-game season, the fact is that he was in net for nine of the Pens' final 13 regular-season games and was a tired goalie entering the playoffs.

    So far this season, Fleury has played in 27 of the Pens' 33 games and, barring a quick return by Tomas Vokoun, a trade or current backup Jeff Zatkoff catching fire, is on pace to tie his career-high of 67 games in net in a season.

    Considering that the three previous times Fleury played in 67 games during the regular season (2006-07, 2009-10 and 2011-12) the Pens were eliminated twice in the first round and once in the second round, his workload this season should be a concern to both Pens management and the coaching staff.

    Although Fleury is having a great start to the 2013-14 season and is on pace to set career bests for goals-against average (2.01) and save percentage (.922), head coach Dan Bylsma must be careful to not place too much of the burden on him this early in the season.

Lack of Scoring Depth

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    While the Penguins' top two lines have garnered a lot of attention this season, both on the ice and in the media, the lack of production shown by the team's bottom two lines so far this season has been a festering and largely overlooked problem.

    Having been forced this past offseason to part ways with both Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy, who for years teamed with Jordan Staal to from the best third line in the NHL, the Pens have not been able to replace the grit and offensive production that they've received from their bottom-six forwards in previous seasons.

    Last season, the Pens' third and fourth lines accounted for 31 percent of the team's regular-season goals (50 of 162), but so far this season, they have only been half as productive, tallying just 15 percent (14 of 96) of the team's goals thus far.

    As a result of the struggles of their third and fourth lines, the Pens are a dismal 1-8-0 this season in games where they score two goals or less and have not shown an ability to grind out wins in tight-checking and low-scoring contests, which is what postseason games usually are.