Pittsburgh Penguins' 5 Biggest Questions Entering the Postseason
Most teams and their fans would consider winning a division title reason enough to call a season a successful one.
For the 2013-14 Pittsburgh Penguins, however, no amount of regular-season success would be able to make up for yet another disappointing postseason performance if they come up short in their quest for the Stanley Cup.
Having lost four of seven playoff series since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, the Pens are looking to make another deep run in the playoffs and, with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in their prime, would view anything less than another championship banner as a failure.
As the regular season draws to a close and the playoffs loom large on the horizon, let's take a look at the Pittsburgh Penguins' five biggest questions entering the postseason.
What Happened to the Offensive Pressure?
As a team that prefers to play an uptempo and puck-possession style, the Penguins are at their best when they are carrying the puck with speed through the neutral zone and taking a lot of shots on net.
It should come as no surprise that, to counter this, teams have tried to crowd the neutral zone and stand up at the blue line, like the Boston Bruins did in last year's Eastern Conference Final, instead of backing into the zone like other teams mistakenly do.
While the logical response would be for the Pens to dump and chase the puck in the offensive zone, they've seemed hesitant at times to do so, and head coach Dan Bylsma, known for his rigid adherence to his game plan, seems unwilling to make the necessary in-game adjustments.
While the Pens have been able to rely on their second-ranked power play to offset their periodic struggles at even strength, every NHL fan knows that referees tend to put their whistles away and call fewer penalties in the postseason.
Despite having been among the league leaders in power-play percentage in each of the past four seasons with little postseason success to show for it, the Pens and their fans know full well that being overly reliant on your power play is not a recipe for success.
Having gotten a preview of playoff-style hockey on a recent road trip against the Chicago Blackhawks, San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks, the Pens must show an ability to generate offensive pressure when teams clog the neutral zone.
If they can't, the Pens can expect results in the postseason similar to those they got in those games against the best of the Western Conference when they went 0-3 and were outshot 118-71.
Can They Flip the Switch?
Having won three games or more in a row eight times and lost three games or more in a row four times, the 2013-14 season certainly has been an up-and-down one for the Penguins.
Unfortunately, since the Olympic break, the latest trend has not been good, as they have lost 10 of 19 games since the schedule resumed on February 27 and fallen out of contention for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Considering that this year's team had reached the 40-win plateau in just 56 games, faster than any other team in franchise history, it's surprising to see how much they've struggled over the last quarter of the season and disconcerting to know that the playoffs are just around the corner.
Fortunately, there is a silver lining to the dark cloud that seems to be hanging, as the Pens' struggles have largely been the result of injuries to key players such as Evgeni Malkin (foot), Paul Martin (hand) and even Kris Letang (stroke), who are expected to be back in the lineup soon.
As bad as the Pens have looked at times over the past month, fans can at least take solace in the fact that the team that they've been watching will not be the same one they'll see in the postseason.
Will Marc-Andre Fleury Be Ready?
Given Marc-Andre Fleury's career statistics and his recent playoff struggles, when it comes to his share of the goaltending workload, less is more.
Having played in 61 of the Penguins' 77 games, which puts him on pace for 65 games for the season, Fleury has had to pick up the slack because of the loss of Tomas Vokoun and the inexperience of Jeff Zatkoff, who, prior to this season, had never seen the ice in an NHL game.
The reason why this excessive workload should concern the Pens and their fans is that, in previous seasons, Fleury has seemed to hit a wall around the 65-game mark.
In the 2007-08 and 2008-09 campaigns, Fleury had his statistically best seasons ever and led the Pens to the Stanley Cup Final after playing just 35 games due to an injury and 62 games, respectively.
In the three following seasons, Fleury totaled 67, 65 and 67 games played, and the Pens won just one playoff series in that stretch.
As a goaltender who tends to rely more on reflexes rather than technique, Fleury tends to cut corners when he's fatigued, and that often translates into soft goals, especially in the playoffs.
Having struggled in each of the past four postseasons, posting a disastrous .877 save percentage over that span, Fleury will undoubtedly be the center of attention, and he is well aware that his future in Pittsburgh will depend on this year's playoff performance.
Will Help Be on the Way?
With goaltender Tomas Vokoun having yet to play a game this season and Kris Letang perhaps having already played his last game of the season, the Pens have been dealing with major injuries since training camp.
Having lost a combined 479 man games due to injury, most in the NHL and almost 100 more than the second-place Detroit Red Wings, the Pens have somehow been able to weather the storm to remain atop the Eastern Conference.
While Paul Martin recently returned from a hand injury, Kris Letang's return is still uncertain, and the Pens have been forced to play without their top two defensemen for much of the season.
Only the return of Rob Scuderi, the emergence of Olli Maatta and strong play of Matt Niskanen have kept the Pens' defensive unit from falling apart.
Up front, the Pens have been dealing with the loss of Evgeni Malkin due to a foot injury but hope that he, along with deadline acquisition Marcel Goc, will back in time for the postseason.
Despite their regular-season success thus far, patchwork lineups usually don't fare too well in the postseason, and the Pens will need to get healthy before the postseason begins if they have any hopes of advancing deep into the playoffs.
Are the Penguins Built for the Postseason?
Last season, Pens general manager Ray Shero, perhaps anticipating a matchup against the Boston Bruins, added size and grit to his roster at the trade deadline in Douglas Murray, Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow.
While these moves made the Pens a bigger and stronger team, it also made them a slower team, which was very evident against the quicker and more tenacious New York Islanders in the first round of the playoffs.
This season, Shero decided to go in a different direction and added speed and versatility in Marcel Goc and Lee Stempniak, hoping to improve the team's ability to play an uptempo style.
In order to survive four playoff rounds and get the 16 postseason wins necessary to hoist the Stanley Cup, a team must be able to adapt its style of play to counter its opponent.
While the Pens seem better prepared to face an uptempo team this postseason, their recent struggles against bigger lineups raises questions as to whether they can match the physicality of the NHL's more rugged teams.