Pittsburgh Penguins' 5 Biggest Questions in Final Month of 2013-14 Season
While it seems like they have had the Metro wrapped up since November, there are still plenty of questions lingering as the campaign ends and teams slide into playoff mode.
Considering the injuries that the team has faced all season long and the names that are still on injured reserve, the next month will be more important for Pittsburgh than it might be for a totally healthy team.
The Penguins will need to get a few players back without losing anyone else, and there are a few other storylines to keep an eye on over the next four weeks.
Will Tomas Vokoun Return for the Postseason?
If Marc-Andre Fleury can continue to play like he has been recently, then the return of Tomas Vokoun won't matter in the playoffs. The No. 1 goalie has been feeling it over the last few weeks and has even taken to making flashy saves on poor, unsuspecting rookies.
We've seen this from him before though, and there are still some concerns about his ability to perform when the pressure is high. The Penguins have an 18-point lead in the Metropolitan and are all but mathematically guaranteed a top-three seed in the Eastern Conference.
This isn't exactly pressure-packed hockey for Fleury.
At the end of February, Vokoun's agent Allan Walsh tweeted that his client had been cleared to participate in full practices with the Penguins. According to Brian Stubits of CBS Sports, the goalie is working to return to game action for Pittsburgh.
It's just a matter of whether or not the 37-year-old can get the reps needed to get into playoff shape after missing an entire season following an emergency procedure to dissolve a blood clot. Regardless of whether or not he would be needed as a fallback for Fleury, there's no doubt that he's an upgrade over Jeff Zatkoff.
Jonathan Willis penned a more extensive breakdown of how strong the tandem of Fleury and Vokoun is, and the Penguins are just a better team with the more high-quality insurance policy that the veteran provides.
Can Beau Bennett Still Make an Impact?
It's been nearly four months since Beau Bennett has played an NHL hockey game. He underwent wrist surgery at the end of November and was originally slated to miss eight to 10 weeks.
That time has come and gone, and he still hasn't returned. He was hoping to be able to come back following the Olympic break, but he suffered a setback at the end of February that added another three to four weeks to his timetable.
In a season that was supposed to see Bennett given a shot as a top-six forward on one of the NHL's best offensive teams, injuries have kept the 22-year-old to a total of 12 games played. Even if he is able to return in time for the postseason, does he have enough experience to play in the intense environment of the playoffs?
There's a big difference between November hockey and April hockey. Bennett's pedigree suggests that he could be a difference-maker, but that could be asking too much from a player with only 44 games of NHL experience.
Is Kris Letang Done for the Year?
Unlike Bennett's wrist injury, Kris Letang's terrifying stroke was potentially career- and life-threatening. The Penguins initially updated his situation on February 7, and at that point general manager Ray Shero said, "The most important thing right now, of course, is Kris’ health. We’re not thinking about hockey right now. We want to make sure he gets the best possible care and gets better. After six weeks of treatment, doctors will re-evaluate Kris."
After that, the team kept mostly mum about the defenseman's progress. Chris Adamski of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recently noted that head coach Dan Bylsma said Letang was skating again in Pittsburgh.
Despite that obvious step forward, Rob Rossi of the Tribune-Review wrote: "[T]he crucial thing to keep in mind regarding Letang is there remains no time frame for his return. Also, because this cannot be stressed enough, the information on this end is that the Penguins are not expecting him to play again until next season."
Rossi also states in his column that Letang is "due to be re-evaluated by team physicians sometime near the end of next week." Perhaps we will know more at that point.
Will Lee Stempniak Continue to Click?
Lee Stempniak isn't Ryan Kesler—much to the chagrin of a certain sect of Penguins fans—but he's played four games with Pittsburgh now and seems to be jelling nicely on the team's top line alongside Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz.
According to Dobber Hockey's line combination tracker, the newly acquired Stempniak has taken more than 65 percent of his even-strength shifts on the No. 1 line. While he was held pointless in his first two games as a Penguin, the 31-year-old veteran has notched three assists in his last two contests.
That's all Pittsburgh was looking for when it traded a 2014 third-round pick to the Calgary Flames for Stempniak—someone to cement the top-line right-wing spot in place of Pascal Dupuis, who is out for the season. So far, the former Flame has filled in admirably, and it seems to be only a matter of time before he finds the back of the net for his first tally as a Penguin.
Will Olli Maatta Ever Reach His Ceiling?
It seems that every time Olli Maatta takes the ice, he's a bit better than he was the game prior. After becoming somewhat of an overnight sensation while playing for Finland in the 2014 Winter Olympics, the 19-year-old defenseman has continued his strong play in Pittsburgh.
He has five points in seven games since returning from Sochi and seems to be adding an offensive element to his game that scouts hadn't picked out prior to his draft year in 2012. He has always been billed as a steady presence in the defensive zone, but his sudden flair for offense is easing the loss of Letang for the time being.
It was somewhat surprising when Maatta made the team back in October. It was a little more surprising that the Penguins decided to keep him around as the season rolled into November. He's now established himself as an Olympian and a defensive cornerstone in Pittsburgh.
Now the only question seems to be: How will he respond to the pressure of playoff hockey?
All statistics appear courtesy of HockeyDB.com unless otherwise noted and are accurate through games played on March 11.
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