The 5 Biggest Questions for Pittsburgh Penguins in the Home Stretch in 2013-14
With only six games remaining on their 2013-14 schedule, the Pittsburgh Penguins have entered the final stage of their season. They sit atop the Metropolitan Division and possess a 48-23-5 record—good for yet another 100-plus point season for the Penguins.
The Division is all but locked up, and with an eight-point lead over the third-place Tampa Bay Lightning—and with nine points between Pittsburgh and the Eastern Conference's top team, the Boston Bruins—the Penguins will almost certainly be the second seed in the first round of the postseason.
There are answers to several important questions for the team, but all is not settled. For a squad that's been riddled with injuries all season long, a handful of inquires hang in the balance as the season winds down.
Statistics appear courtesy of NHL.com unless otherwise noted and are accurate through games played on April 1.
Will Kris Letang Play?
Kris Letang hasn't laced up the skates and played in an actual game for the Penguins since the end of January. On February 7, the Penguins announced via their official website that the defenseman had suffered a stroke and was slated to miss upward of six weeks.
That window closed in mid-March as the team declared Letang fit for full practice. He's been out on the ice skating hard ever since, and Josh Yohe of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recently reported that the defender's return date is up to him.
Letang has this to say about his pending comeback, per Yohe's column:
It's going to be my call. It's all about when I feel ready... It's not a case of your shoulder or something like that. When I'm ready, I'm ready.
It's outstanding news for both player and team that he'll be able to recover from a terrifying situation. Will Letang be able to make the jump into game action prior to the end of the regular season, though?
Are the Penguins Really Considering a Coaching Change?
The "fire Dan Bylsma" movement has been gaining steam on a daily basis since the United States bowed out of the Olympics in disappointing fashion. That's snowballed over the last few weeks, and some pundits are wondering aloud whether or not the Penguins would be well served by making a change behind the bench.
The presence of Jacques Martin—a former head coach with a solid track record—as an assistant has some people convinced that the transition would be a quick and painless one and would be the jolt that the Penguins need heading into the postseason.
We discussed this topic at great length here, but it seems unlikely that Pittsburgh will move forward with a coaching change. They signed Bylsma to an extension last summer, and he's managed another 100-point season despite staggering injury issues.
How Wide of a Margin Will Sidney Crosby Have in Art Ross Trophy Chase?
Sidney Crosby scored his 100th point of the season on April 1—an assist against the Carolina Hurricanes. It's the fifth time that No. 87 has hit the century mark, and the first time he's done it since the 2009-10 season.
The second-leading scorer in the NHL this year is Ryan Getzlaf, and he's clipping along nicely with 83 points. With only a handful of games left in the campaign, Crosby has all but locked up the Art Ross given he has a 17-point lead over the next closest player.
Just how wide will that margin be by the end of the campaign, though? ESPN.com projects that the Penguin will finish the year with 108 points, while Getzlaf is projected to reach 91 points. That's a massive gap between first and second, and any questions about Crosby being the top offensive forward in the league should be quieted by his virtuoso performance this season.
Pittsburgh's First-Round Opponent Will Be...?
It's almost a sure thing that the Penguins will finish the season as the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. Their cushion on the third seed and the distance between them and the Bruins will likely seal that fate.
While the top of the East is more or less settled, the bottom seeds will come down to the wire. Five teams are battling for the final two wild-card spots. Right now they belong to the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets, but the Toronto Maple Leafs, Washington Capitals and New Jersey Devils could still make the push.
The Penguins might not know who they're set to square off with until the last day of the regular season, which could make the prep work interesting.
How Much Rest for Marc-Andre Fleury?
Only one other goalie in the NHL has made more appearances than Marc-Andre Fleury. He's made 60 appearances, but with the Metropolitan banner almost certainly coming to Pittsburgh and the first-place spot in the East out of reach, will Bylsma rest "Flower" down the stretch?
Fleury usually plays between 65 and 67 games, but this could be a rare chance for the No. 1 goalie to recuperate a bit before the intensity of the playoffs kicks in.
The rotation seems to be trending in that direction. Jeff Zatkoff only started 12 times between October and the end of January but made six starts in the month of March alone. It wouldn't be surprising to see him play three or four of Pittsburgh's final contests as Fleury gets his game face on for the playoffs.