Pittsburgh Penguins with the Most to Prove in the Postseason
Having reached the 50-win plateau for just the third time in franchise history, the Pens have a lot of reasons to be proud of what they've accomplished so far this season.
However, as a team built to win now and blessed with two of the top players in the world in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, anything less than a conference championship and a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals will be a disappointment.
As head coach Dan Bylsma and the team look to prove that last year was just a bump in the road on their way to another victory parade, let's look at the five Pens with the most to prove this postseason.
No. 5: Olli Maatta
Without a doubt, one of the biggest surprises this season for the Penguins has been the emergence of 19-year-old defenseman Olli Maatta.
As rare as it is for teenage defensemen to even make an NHL roster, a rookie blueliner who is among the team leaders in power-play points, is a plus-nine and averages 20 minutes of ice time per game is simply unheard of—but that's exactly what Maatta has done in 2013-14.
Not expected to challenge for a roster spot until next season, Maatta was a standout in training camp, and his mobility and ability to jump into the play made him a natural fit for the Pens' up-tempo system.
Not wanting to overwhelm him early on, the coaching staff kept Maatta on a shortened leash on a third-line pairing, and he was limited to about 15 minutes of ice time per game.
However, injuries to Paul Martin and Kris Letang forced Maatta into a bigger role, and he responded with his most productive stretch of the season.
After totaling just one goal and four assists in the first two months of the season, Maatta tallied four goals and 11 assists in December and January and continued his strong play at the Sochi Olympics as a key member of the bronze-medal winning Team Finland.
While Maatta has yet to hit the proverbial "rookie wall," his production has been down of late, and he will have to play well in the postseason to prove that his emergence was no fluke.
No. 4: Beau Bennett
While many dismissed that prediction as the act of a desperate coach trying to preserve his job, Bennett has shown that he definitely has the ability—if not yet the consistency—to be a top-six forward.
Having registered just one goal and two assists through the first 12 games of the season before injuring his wrist, Bennett tallied points in three of the first four games after returning to the lineup.
However, Bennett has been known as a streaky scorer—even in his days at Denver University—and has shown flashes before only to disappear for long stretches.
In last year's playoffs, Bennett scored the Pens' first postseason goal, which proved to be the game-winner, but later struggled and was a healthy scratch for nine of the team's 15 playoff games.
Bennett has gotten an extensive look on Sidney Crosby's right side recently but—having gone scoreless in his last three games—will have to play consistently well in the postseason in order to vindicate Bylsma's apparent confidence in him.
No. 3: Brooks Orpik
Since his first full season with the Penguins in 2003-04, Brooks Orpik has been the heart and soul of the team's blue-line corps.
Known for both his physicality and his hockey IQ, Orpik is usually among the team leaders in plus/minus and ice time, but the 2013-14 season has been statistically his worst.
Having averaged a plus-15 over the past three seasons, Orpik is a minus-four this season, which—coupled with injuries and the struggles of other defensemen—is a big reason why the Pens are almost dead even in five-on-five play, scoring only 1.03 goals at even strength for every goal they surrender.
Currently in the final year of a six-year contract signed after the Pens' first trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008, Orpik certainly has given the Pens their money's worth. But the question remains as to how much a 33-year-old defenseman may be worth to them now.
With the emergence of Olli Maatta this season and the expected arrival of other blue-chip defensive prospects next season and beyond, the Pens' blue line seems due for some changes.
Given the fact that three of the Pens' top-six defensemen are over 30 and make more than $12 million combined, it may turn out that they only have the cap space and room for either Orpik or fellow free-agent-to-be Matt Niskanen, who is having a career year.
While no one knows what the salary cap will be next season, Orpik, coming off of a down season, needs to have a strong postseason to prove to the Pens that he's worth another multi-year deal.
No. 2: Kris Letang
Having signed a long-term extension, even after struggling in last year's Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Bruins, Kris Letang began the season under a mountain of expectations.
Initially paired with the returning Rob Scuderi—who he would play just four periods with before Scuderi suffered a broken ankle—Letang started slowly, with just nine points in the first 24 games.
After being the only defenseman in the NHL to average better than a point per game the previous season, Letang saw his production drop and at times seemed frustrated with the Pens' new defensive system, which he felt limited his ability to carry the puck deep into the offensive zone.
Able to freelance offensively when defensive partner Rob Scuderi returned to the lineup in late December, Letang would have his best month of the season in January—tallying seven points in 10 games—before suffering a stroke on January 30.
Fortunately, Letang was able to return this week against the Detroit Red Wings and registered an assist and more than 20 minutes of ice time, a surprising workload for a player who was thought to be lost for the season.
Having weathered a down season and a medical scare, Letang will need to have a strong postseason in order to prove that last season was not a fluke, and that he is once again worthy of being a Norris Trophy candidate.
No. 1: Marc-Andre Fleury
Since leading the Penguins to a Stanley Cup in 2009, Marc-Andre Fleury has a nagging habit of looking like a franchise netminder during the regular season and anything but during the postseason.
Despite the facts that postseason games tend to be lower scoring and teams focus more on defense, Fleury's save percentage has improved in the postseason only once in seven seasons—during his first trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2008 (from .921 to .933).
While many see the 2009 postseason as Fleury's best, the numbers show that even that performance was an anomaly, as his .908 save percentage was lower than his career regular-season average of .910 and the lowest of any Stanley Cup winning goaltender since the Pens' Tom Barrasso (.907) in 1992.
Since hoisting the Stanley Cup, Fleury has a postseason record of just 14-16, a disastrous .877 save percentage and was finally exiled to the bench last year in favor of the steady, albeit less flashy, Tomas Vokoun.
After a tumultuous postseason involving trade rumors, a new goaltending coach and rampant speculation about his future with the organization, Fleury has reasserted himself. He has tied a career high with five shutouts and stands second in wins with 39.
However, should he struggle again this postseason, no amount of regular season success will be able to silence the critics or preserve his place as the Pens' starting goaltender.
With one year left on his contract and promising goaltending prospects in the Pens' farm system, Marc-Andre Fleury will be under immense pressure to be the dominant goaltender of years past and clearly— out of all of the Pens—has the most to prove this postseason.