How the Pittsburgh Penguins Will Win the Stanley Cup
Every NHL season begins the same way.
Thirty teams, all starting on an even playing field. A handful of them, based on roster alone at the start of the season, look good enough that a Stanley Cup seems very possible.
But like any team, however, there are demons that need to be exorcised to prove that team's worth.
Hockey fans know that it takes more than a good roster to hoist the Cup.
Earlier this week, ESPN hockey analysts cast their picks for the team leaders in 2010-2011. Out of six votes, three went to the Pittsburgh Penguins to bring the Stanley Cup home for the fourth time in the history of the franchise.
Hindsight, these picks mean nothing because anything can happen in the 82-game span.
But there clearly is something about the Pens' lineup that speaks to their potential and what can be achieved in the upcoming months. They have the depth to take them far into the playoffs.
With that depth comes a tremendous responsibility for the team to live up to the potential GM Ray Shero has built in the offseason. This means playing to the strengths of players, honing weak points, and sticking to basic winning strategies that can help any team win.
Based on the free-agency signings and call-ups, there are a few things the Pens must do if they want to become more than just a team with the potential to win the Cup.
If the Pens can stick to the following gameplan, they will win the Cup.
Laura Falcon is a college intern for Bleacher Report and Featured Columnist for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Follow her on Twitter or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keep Out of The Box
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What do Craig Adams, Matt Cooke, Brooks Orpik, Chris Kunitz, Max Talbot and Eric Tangradi have in common?
They're all gritty hitters.
What do Eric Godard, Arron Asham and Mike Rupp have in common?
They're all powerful wingers who aren't afraid of dropping the mits.
I've also just listed almost half of the Penguins' roster.
As GM Ray Shero put this team together during the offseason, he had to see the sheer amount of physical presence he was packing onto the roster.
A physical team isn't necessarily a bad thing. Pens fans can be assured that star players Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal will be free from aggressive hecklers, but the physicality needs to remain in check and avoid venturing into carelessness.
The Pens did just that against the Detroit Red Wings for their final preseason game. Because of the nature of their system, the Pens tend to completely lose their composure when their aggression becomes carelessness.
Frustration builds when the Pens are constantly called to play defense in their own end through penalty kills because their system becomes ineffective.
The Pens will need to tread carefully and not get too caught up in the heat of the game so as to avoid shorthanded situations, despite the strength of players they have in the penalty kill.
They really need to focus on giving goalie Marc-Andre Fleury more help. Both the offense and defense depended on him a little too much, which is one of the reasons Fleury had poor statistics.
Staying out of the box will certainly help in that category.
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No NHL or professional athlete can emphasize this enough.
It's a given that health is important in completing a season with the greatest chances of success, but a lack of healthy players became a huge reason why the Pens finished their season just above mediocre.
By mid-November, the injury list included about eight Penguins and the team looked like Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins 2.0. When your top-two defensemen are Martin Skoula and Mark Eaton, you know there's a problem.
Similar to how frequent penalty kills stop the flow of the Pens' system, these injuries disrupt the flow of the season because of the constant changes on the roster
Unfortunately, the Pens have already brought in some injuries. During the preseason, Crosby's hip flexor was causing him problems, and Asham absorbed an awkward hit into the boards that could keep him sidelined for a few games.
Of course, there's Jordan Staal, who is still recovering from a foot infection.
With a healthy roster, the Pens already have every imaginable piece needed to win a Stanley Cup if each player plays to his potential.
Clearly the most difficult battle the Pens will face this season is the one against themselves.
Better Power Play
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The Pens closed off the 2009-2010 season with a 17.2-percent effective power play, good for 19th in the NHL.
This was with power play quarterback extraordinaire Sergei Gonchar.
Now that the team has parted ways with Gonchar, the Pens are tasked with filling in Gonchar's skates somehow. This will prove to be a challenge because all eyes set on Alex Goligoski, who is entering only his second full season in the NHL and struggling to find his stride.
With that said, even without Gonchar, the Pens' first power-play unit looks like it could be lethal. Obviously, Crosby and Malkin are the two big names working with whatever Goligoski throws their way, but Mike Comrie and Chris Kunitz are filling in the empty spots.
Two gritty players to match the two skilled players.
I previously mentioned how the Pens need to be careful because Bylsma's aggressive system can sometimes push players over the edge and they can lose their gameplan. When played appropriately, Bylsma's system will draw penalties because of the frustration invoked in both the offensive and defensive opponents and their inability to get the puck out of their zone.
The Pens have to take advantage of this because they draw their fair share of penalties.
Even with the high expectations on defense and in goal, the Pens can't slack off when the opposing team goes a man down. Usually scoring four goals a game for this team spells victory, and cashing in on the power play can make this much easier.
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Speaking of goaltending, Fleury's season was anything but impressive.
He had a 2.65 GAA (24th in the league) and .905 SV% (35th in the league). During the season, Fleury managed to get away with his average play between the pipes because having Crosby and Malkin on your team usually means you'll be scoring goals.
This was exposed in the playoffs, when the Pens hit a hot goaltender in Haroslav Halak and couldn't score. Players and fans turned to Fleury to steal the show, similar to how he did in the 2009 Playoffs, but he couldn't deliver.
Too many times were play-by-play announcer Paul Steigerwald and color analyst Bob Errey mentioning how "Fleury would want that one back."
No team has ever won the Stanley Cup with poor, even average, goaltending.
As the season drifts into the playoffs, teams tend to become much more cautious when the puck drifts beyond their blue line. Scoring immediately becomes more difficult, which is why the pressure to win is on the goalie more than any other player on the ice.
Unfortunately, Fleury wasn't able to keep the Pens in games that they were more than capable of winning. Certain saves that had to be made, weren't.
Fleury is notorious for putting a bad goal or game behind him. Now, more than ever, the Pens need him to forget everything about his performance last season.
If he can protect the net, then the offense is no longer pressured to outscore their opponents in order to win a game.
Home Ice Advantage
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In recent years, teams considered the Pens to be a force when playing at Mellon Arena.
This needs to carry on across the street at the Consol Energy Center, especially in its inaugural year, when the excitement before every game will cut right into the city of Pittsburgh.
It's all about starting anew after a forgettable season and playoffs. The Pens are coming into this season with that feeling of starting completely fresh, which makes a fresh attitude easier to adopt.
Fans were a part of the building process, even getting a chance to see the reactions of members of the Penguins organization as they saw the arena for the first time.
The looks on the players' faces as they see the new state-of-the-art equipment that replaces the aged trinkets used at Mellon Arena are all we need to see that the surroundings are motivating players to do well.
I have yet to make it to the arena, but everyone speaks of the energy inside the building and the loudness that is piercing at times. The entire league knows of the passion and love that comes from the Pens' fanbase.
The Pens need to make sure they continue their domination in front of their home crowd (which also includes Nationwide Arena), because the energy this season will never be the same in the following seasons.
Production from Role Players
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Max Tablot, Mike Rupp, Arron Asham, Mike Comrie, Tyler Kennedy, Eric Godard, Pascal Dupuis, and Craig Adams all have a huge seasons ahead of them.
It's their contract years.
These players have been on the team, or were brought to the team as role players. Those players aren't outright stars, but are the ones who do the little things that help carry a team to the Cup.
Every season, it's expected that Crosby and Malkin will put up good numbers, Staal will be a solid two-way center, etc.
These other players are, typically, the question marks.
Will they have a good season? Will their point totals go up or down?
If these players want to continue their careers in Pittsburgh, they have to really show their worth this season, and that does not necessarily mean in goals.
Adams, for example, didn't score a single goal in the season. Rather, his defensive contributions that had a physical bite made him a pain to other teams.
Then there are players like Rupp, who came to Pittsburgh and had a record-breaking season in points or goal numbers.
These players are the soul of the Pens, and they need to come out with guns a-blazing because Crosby, Malkin and Staal can't do it alone. By spreading out the production and roles on the ice, the team will be much more difficult to defend, always a good trait to have on a team.
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We can fool ourselves as much as we want, but deep down, every one of us knew the Pens didn't have what it took to win the Cup last season.
Sure, it had to do with the injuries, the bad power play, and Fleury not playing his best. But it all bogs down to the fact that the Pens didn't play like they wanted it.
The best part about a bad season is that it's bad. It leaves a sour taste in the mouths of players who desire greatness at all times and will not settle for anything less.
This makes the following season a nice motivation to make things better. Crosby even mentioned after losing in the Cup Final in 2008 that he taped a picture of the Detroit Red Wings celebrating their Cup win right near his workout area so he can remember how much it stung.
The Pens need to remember the embarrassment of losing while putting in little effort to win, and channel it to make this season even better.
Hockey is one of the most emotional games on this earth. Winning has to start within the player's mind, and once they convince themselves that they can and want to win, then they can push through whatever difficulties come their way throughout the season.
So far this preseason, I have seen a higher motivation level already because last season's loss troubled many of the players. The trick is to keep up that motivation, never letting it peak too early, and tapping into it when you need that big playoff push toward the end of the season.
The Pens have been dealt a blessing through the loss against the Montreal Canadiens. They now need to use it as fuel to show just how much they deserve the Cup.