5 Ways the 2014 Winter Olympics Will Benefit the Pittsburgh Penguins
With the conclusion of the Sochi Olympics and the resumption of the NHL schedule, it's time for the Pittsburgh Penguins who took part to put away either their medals or their disappointment and focus on winning their division and chasing the Stanley Cup.
Having lost Paul Martin, Beau Bennett and Kris Letang for most of, if not all of the rest of the regular season, the Pens will have big holes to fill and little time to jell as a team before starting the most difficult stretch of their schedule.
While dealing with a compressed schedule caused by the Olympic break will undoubtedly be a challenge for the Pens, there have been some positives as well.
With just 24 games remaining in the regular season, let's look at five ways the Olympic tournament in Sochi will benefit the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Evgeni Malkin Will Be Motivated
One thing Penguins fans have come to learn about Evgeni Malkin is that the angrier he is, the better he plays.
Given the extremely disappointing performance by Team Russia in Sochi and the amount of criticism he and his teammates have received, it's safe to say Malkin is extremely motivated to play well once the NHL season resumes.
Having struggled to find the back of the net at times this season, Malkin will have the benefit of playing with red-hot linemates in James Neal and Jussi Jokinen, both of whom have averaged a point per game over the past two months.
While some Pens fans might worry as to whether Malkin will suffer from any post-Olympic hangover, it should be noted that, after the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, he averaged a point per game down the stretch and in the postseason as well.
Having had to watch teammate Sidney Crosby lead Canada to a gold medal on Russian soil, Malkin seems eager to get the NHL season going again and take out his Olympic frustrations on the rest of the league.
Sidney Crosby Is Healthy
For Penguins fans, the sight of Sidney Crosby sitting in the press box in a suit instead of on the bench in a uniform has become all too familiar.
Having missed 151 games due to injury during his career, almost the equivalent of two full NHL seasons, Crosby's health has become as big of a concern in Pittsburgh as owner and mentor Mario Lemieux's health was during his career.
Fortunately for the Pens, Crosby returned from the Olympics injury-free and primed to lead the Pens into the playoffs in pursuit of a second Stanley Cup.
Having watched the New York Islanders lose John Tavares for the season to a knee injury suffered against Latvia during the preliminary round, Pens fans should be grateful for Crosby's safe return but, with the playoffs still more than a month away, they won't be able to breathe easy just yet.
Marc-Andre Fleury Got Needed Rest
Although the Olympic break couldn't have come at a worse time for some, for Marc-Andre Fleury, it must have been a welcomed rest from what has been a very busy albeit productive season thus far.
Having carried a bigger share of the goaltending workload this season than the coaching staff would have preferred, Fleury is on pace to match his career high with 67 games played in a season.
While the Pens have won just one playoff series in the three seasons in which Fleury played in as many games, this year's Olympic break should make him sharper and keep him from being as fatigued as he has been in recent years.
Hopefully for the Pens, the combination of Fleury feeling both snubbed by being left off of Team Canada and rejuvenated by the Olympic break will make it easier for Dan Bylsma to walk the fine line between keeping him sharp and overworking him.
Olli Maatta Elevated His Game
With both Paul Martin and Kris Letang likely out for the remainder of the regular season, the Penguins will desperately need someone to fill the void on the blue line.
Fortunately, Olli Maatta, fresh off of a strong Olympic performance, seems ready to take the next step in his development and make the jump to a top-four defensive role.
Before the Olympics began, I opined that the Sochi Games would give Maatta a chance to take on more responsibility, which would help him become a more complete player when he returned to Pittsburgh.
Having scored three goals and two assists during the tournament while adeptly quarterbacking the Finnish power play, Maatta took full advantage of that opportunity and proved he can handle an expanded role.
With the Pens' top two offensive defensemen on the shelf for the near future, Maatta seems likely to get that same opportunity in the NHL as the regular season winds down and the postseason approaches.
Dan Bylsma Learned a Tough Lesson
For Penguins fans who suffered through a painful four-game sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins in last year's Eastern Conference Final, Team USA's medal-round performance was eerily familiar.
After utilizing a puck-pressure system and outscoring their preliminary-round opponents by a combined 15-4, Byslma opted for a passive 1-2-2 system against Canada, the most talented and most disciplined team in the tournament.
The result was a statistically lopsided 1-0 hockey game in which Team USA had little sustained pressure, no net-front presence and showed no ability or even willingness to make adjustments.
In short, Team USA looked a lot like the Penguins did last year against the Bruins in the playoffs as they managed just two goals in four lopsided games.
While Bylsma's Pens teams have been successful during the regular season (when opponents rarely change their style of play for a single game), he has not been able to duplicate the postseason success he had in his first season when he led the Pens to the Stanley Cup.
Having been humbled by Team USA's failures in the medal round, Bylsma may come to realize that in order to be successful in the postseason, he has to be willing to make adjustments to his strategy and line combinations, which are things, to this point, he hasn't seemed willing to do.