5 Keys for Pittsburgh Penguins to Finish Strong in 2013-14 NHL Regular Season
This is it—the last week we'll be able to talk about the 2013-14 NHL season in future tense. After the next few games, the Pittsburgh Penguins will put a stamp on this campaign and head into the playoffs with revenge on the brain.
Revenge for an embarrassing showing in the Eastern Conference Final last season. Revenge for an early exit the year before. And the year before that.
The 2013-14 season has just felt like a long and wordy prelude to the story that really matters—the forward at the beginning of a poetry book. It's time for the Penguins to rip it out and move onto the part of the year that really matters.
The postseason is just around the corner, and there are a few things left for Pittsburgh to work on prior to hitting Round 1.
Get Kris Letang Going on the Power Play
Kris Letang will make his first appearance on an NHL sheet of ice on April 7, 10 weeks after suffering a stroke. He's been skating for a while now and should have his game legs underneath him. Head coach Dan Bylsma won't be shaking up his top power-play unit to make space for Letang, though.
He'll start on the second unit, as per Shelly Anderson.
The second-best power play in the NHL just got a lot more dangerous. Letang is one of the smoothest skaters in the league, and he can be a deadly addition to the second group. The Penguins are clicking 23.3 percent of the time heading into the postseason.
Can they get all the way to 25 percent with Letang back in the fold? They'll have a few games to find out.
Get a Feel for the State of Tomas Vokoun
Tomas Vokoun hasn't played a game during the 2013-14 campaign yet. A blood clot kept him off the ice for four months, and the 37-year-old is just now in good enough shape to take to a conditioning stint in the AHL.
According to Josh Yohe of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, he'll make his first start for the Wilkes Barre/Scranton Penguins on April 9, and Vokoun's progress is worth keeping an eye on moving forward. He's proven his value as a backup during the playoffs and would be a notable upgrade over Jeff Zatkoff.
If he's at 100 percent. It's not worth icing Vokoun if he's not moving as quickly as he was last year, but it's an interesting situation to keep in mind as the final week comes to a close.
Jump-Start James Neal
The only person that has missed Evgeni Malkin more than his fantasy owners during their playoff stretch runs is James Neal. He's an explosive and smart goal scorer when he has a center that can hit him with slick passes.
His most frequent linemates over the last thee games, according to Dobber Hockey's line tracker, are Beau Bennett and Jussi Jokinen. Two good players, but Malkin they are not. Since "Geno" went down on March 23 against the St. Louis Blues, Neal has only scored one goal in eight games.
The former 40-goal scorer will get back on track once Malkin is back on board, but it'd be nice to see him get on track before the playoffs are underway.
Allow Matt Niskanen and Olli Maatta to Adjust
Throughout the season, Bylsma has had to lean on the pairing of Olli Maatta and Matt Niskanen heavily. They've spent time as a top pairing on the second unit, but with Letang back and the blue line starting to come together, they'll be relegated to the third line.
For guys that have been playing upwards of 20 minutes a night, this could be a tough adjustment—especially for a young guy like Maatta, who maybe had less chance to lose focus during so much playing time.
The duo will be pivotal to Pittsburgh's playoff run, and they'll need to acclimate to less responsibility and fewer minutes due to the defensive core being healthy for the first time since October.
Don't Develop Any Bad Habits
During the regular season, there's time during practices and in between games to iron out any kinks that may be developing. Sloppy stretches that last a week or two might only cost a team two or three points in the standings, and unless it gets to Toronto Maple Leafs-like proportions, there's no reason to panic.
The wheels can fall off across a three-game stretch, though, if bad habits are developed and not corrected. Fans and pundits of the St. Louis Blues are in a mild panic right now because the team just lost three consecutive games for the first time all season.
This has occurred because they've suddenly started to cough up the puck in the defensive zone, and Ryan Miller hasn't been able to bail them out. Pittsburgh needs to avoid any sort of slump along these lines. They need to hit the postseason rolling instead of taking a game or two to gear up.
All statistics appear courtesy of NHL.com unless otherwise noted and are accurate through games played on April 8.
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