Pittsburgh Penguins: Five Players Who Need to Step Up in the Playoffs
Our time has come hockey fans.
It's the NHL playoffs.
Lord Stanley's Cup is the hardest trophy to win in all of sports.
There is no other sport that combines such brute physicality with the extensive amount of play as the NHL playoffs does.
While the NFL may be more physical, it takes only three or four games to win the Superbowl. And while the NBA takes as many games to win a championship, it is not nearly as taxing on the player's bodies.
That being said, there have only been two teams to make the Stanley Cup Finals in the past two years.
One of which is the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The road for the Pens this year will not be as easy as years past. The Devils and Capitals pose threats the Penguins haven't seen in either of their last two trips to the finals.
For Pittsburgh to make another run, it will take more than a few players showing up to carry them to the finals. They will need a consistent effort from everyone on the ice.
With that in mind, these are the players who most need to step up and play at a consistent level for the Pens to make another trip to the prestigious Stanley Cup Finals.
At times this year, Alex Goligoski has looked like the heir apparent to Sergei Gonchar as the Penguins hoped he would be.
At others, Goligoski has looked like a defenseman not worthy of being in the NHL, turning over the puck in critical situations.
For Alex, it has been a story of two seasons.
Before his undisclosed lower-body injury earlier in the season, Goligoski had notched six goals and eight assists in only 20 games with a +11 plus/minus rating.
Since then, Alex has had just two goals and 21 assists in 49 games with a -4 plus/minus rating.
Who knows what happened to him in the time that he sat out, but the Pens need him to get back to the way he was playing early in the season.
If Goligoski can get back to playing this way, it will sure up the Penguins turnover prone defense and would make their first power play unit one of, if not the most formidable unit in the NHL heading into the playoffs.
I reserve full judgment for after the playoff season, but thus far Alexei Ponikarovsky has been nothing of what the Penguins had hoped for when they acquired him from Toronto.
Scoring just two goals in his 16 games with Pittsburgh, Ponikarovsky has looked nothing like the top-line winger who was supposed to put the Pens over the top.
While he came to Pittsburgh as a player who could produce on a bad team, he has turned into a player who disappears on a talented team.
The Penguins are always in need of scoring from their wingers, so if Ponikarovsky starts playing like the Top-Six forward he is supposed to be, he could greatly improve the Pens' chances of success in the playoffs.
However, if Ponikarovsky's poor play from the regular season carries into the playoffs, it's safe to say Pittsburgh will not make a push to sign him in the off-season.
Lest we forget that the Penguins lost their two shutdown defensemen from last year, Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill.
This year, it will be up to the defensive pairing of Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang to match-up against the other team's top line.
While Orpik is not prone to making mistakes in the defensive zone, Letang is.
Although only 22-years-old, Letang must learn to play a smarter game.
He has shown a tendency to let forwards get behind him far too often, whether it be in front of the net, or pinching in too frequently at the blue line, leaving Fleury and Orpik out to dry. He also, like Goligoski, has turned the puck over far too frequently in situations where the Pens simply cannot afford it (see the most recent Pittsburgh-New Jersey game).
If the Penguins plan to contain the likes of Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Ovechkin in the playoffs, Letang must play smarter hockey.
If not, things could get ugly considering that even with the stellar defensive play of Scuderi and Gill last year, Ovechkin still managed 14 points in the Pens-Caps series.
The Game 7 hero from last year's finals has certainly not lived up to his "superstar" nickname this season.
After undergoing shoulder surgery in the off-season and missing the start of the regular season, Talbot has totaled just two goals and five assists in the 45 games he has played this year.
Compare that to his statistics from last years playoff season (8 goals and 5 assists in 24 games) and it's easy to see how pivotal of a role Talbot could play come playoff time.
While Max won't get as many chances this year as last (as he played on the second line with Malkin last year and is now on the fourth line) the Pens still need to get scoring out of role players whom we generally wouldn't expect to put the puck in the net.
Talbot's performance in the playoffs last year makes him the perfect candidate for this role.
Evgeni Malkin's play has been a microcosm of the Pens' performance this year, looking like a world-beater one game and then disappearing the next.
As we witnessed last year, when Geno is playing at the top of his game, he is one of, if not the best player in the NHL.
When this is the case, it's nearly impossible to devise a plan to shut down the Pens. Teams are stuck having to play their second defensive pairing against Malkin's second line as the first pairing will invariably be matched up against Crosby.
When Malkin pulls one of his disappearing acts, which we've unfortunately become accustomed to this year, the Penguins turn one dimensional.
As a result, Geno tends to take penalties out of frustration, putting the Pens in tough penalty killing situations.
If the Pittsburgh Penguins are going to make another run to the Stanley Cup, Evgeni Malkin is the number one key to their success.
With Evgeni on his game, the Pens are nearly unstoppable.