5 Reasons for Pittsburgh Penguins Fans to Be Optimistic About the Playoffs

Steve Rodenbaugh@rodeyslContributor IIIApril 15, 2014

5 Reasons for Pittsburgh Penguins Fans to Be Optimistic About the Playoffs

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    Gene J. Puskar

    With the 82-game regular seasona season which saw them win 51 gamesnow behind them, the Pittsburgh Penguins can look ahead to the games that really matter in pursuit of another 16 wins and the Stanley Cup.

    Last year, the Pens advanced all the way to the Eastern Conference Final only to be swept by the Boston Bruins, the first time the Pens were swept in the playoffs since the Bruins did it in 1979.

    Now, one year later, the Pens are eager to put this year's injuries and last year's disappointment behind them and raise another banner at the Consol Energy Center.

    As the Pens get ready to face the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round, let's take a look at five reasons for fans to be optimistic about their chances this postseason.

No. 5: Lowered Expectations

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Considering that the 2013-14 Penguins reached the 50-win plateau for just the third time in franchise history, one would think that they would be considered one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup.

    However, whether it's because of questions about Marc-Andre Fleury, given his recent playoff struggles, or their 11-9-4 record since the Olympic break, the Pens seem to have been largely ignored by both NHL fans and the media.

    While not being taken seriously might hurt the confidence of some teams, it actually might work to the Pens' advantage since, for the first time since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, they get to be the underdog.

    Having entered the last four postseasons as the higher seed in at least the first round, the Pens have struggled against seemingly inferior teams and were only able to make it past the second round oncein 2013, when they were summarily swept in the conference final.

    Hopefully, the Pens can draw motivation from being dismissed by the majority of fans and analysts and can focus on trying to beat their opponents instead of trying to meet lofty expectations.

No. 4: Team Health Is Much Improved

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    USA TODAY Sports

    While every team wants to be playing its best at the start of the postseason, the Penguins seem happy just to have their best players playing at all right now.

    Although every team has to deal with injuries, the Pens seem to have been playing under a black cloud of injuries all season.

    Having lost Pascal Dupuis for the season, Kris Letang for 45 games, Paul Martin for 43 games and James Neal for 23 games, the Pens are still waiting on the return of Evgeni Malkin, who has missed 22 games this season.

    Fortunately, the Pens are getting healthy at the right time. Malkin seems close to returning to the lineup, and the rest of the roster is the healthiest it has been all season.

    Without a doubt, the best injury news of all for the Pens is the noticeable absence of a name that has spent far too much time on the injury report in recent seasonsSidney Crosby.

    Having missed the last month of the 2012-13 season with a broken jaw, Crosby was injury-free this season (insert "knock on wood" here) and played in 80 or more games for just the third time in nine seasons. 

No. 3: Committment to Defense

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Given how much attention the Penguins coaches and players have given to improving their team defense, it might come as a disappointment to learn that their goals-against average actually went up this season when compared to last seasonfrom 2.48 to 2.49.

    However, when you factor in that the Pens led the league with 527 man-games missed, 114 of which were by top defensemen Kris Letang, Paul Martin and Rob Scuderi, it's obvious that only a team-wide commitment to playing strong defense kept them at the top of the Metropolitan Division.

    Considering that the team lost last year's backup goaltender Tomas Vokoun to blood clots before the season and that current backup goaltender Jeff Zatkoff had never played in the NHL before, one has to wonder how good it might have been defensively had it been healthy.

    With their blue-line corps back at full speed, the Pens now have the talent and experience to play the low-scoring, tight-checking type of games that the playoffs usually provide.

    If the Pens can show the commitment to team defense in the postseason that they've shown in the regular season, they will be primed for protracted playoff run.

No. 2: Feeling Unfulfilled

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    USA TODAY Sports

    While head coach Dan Bylsma would have preferred to coast to the Presidents' Trophy and rest his players down the stretch, it didn't work out that way, as the Penguins were 5-3-2 over the last 10 games of the season.

    After reaching the 40-win plateau in just 57 games, faster than any other team in franchise history, Pittsburgh won just 13 of its last 29 games after February 1, which was definitely a disappointing end to the season.

    However, it seems to have created a sense of frustration within the Pens, and that might give them extra motivation to make things right in the postseason.

    When the Pens won the Stanley Cup in 2009, they were essentially playing playoff hockey a month before everyone else and had to win 18 of their last 24 games just to make the postseason.

    Last season, the Pens rang up a 15-game winning streak en route to the top seed but hadn’t faced adversity down the stretch, and it showed in their first-round matchup against the New York Islanders.

    If their feisty play down the stretch this season is any indication, the Pens seem to have a chip on their collective shoulder entering the postseason that bodes well for their chances at winning another Stanley Cup.

No. 1: Favorable Seedings

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    Gene J. Puskar

    As disappointing as the Penguins' 4-3 loss in overtime to the Philadelphia Flyers on April 12 was, the fact is that it actually benefits them in the long run.

    While a regulation win for the Pens would have resulted in the Flyers facing the Boston Bruins in the first round, a win-win situation for the Pens, an overtime win would have resulted in a Pens-Flyers matchup.

    Considering the Flyers' 4-1 record against the Pens this season and 9-1-1 record at the Consol Energy Center since it opened, facing them in the first round for the second time in three years would have been a tough matchup.

    Fortunately, the Pens will square off against the Columbus Blue Jackets, a team they won all five matchups against this season by a combined score of 17-7.

    If the Pens can win their first-round matchup, they could get a favorable matchup in the second round, as Detroit is more than capable of upsetting the Bruins, and the Rangers have split with the Flyers on the road at dominated them at Madison Square Garden.

    Depending on how the first round shakes out, it's quite possible that the Pens could end up as the top seed remaining in the Eastern Conference with their postseason antagonists from years past, the Bruins and Flyers, standing on the outside looking in.