Pittsburgh Penguins: 10 Keys to a Successful Rest of the Season

Shawn McGrathContributor IIDecember 23, 2011

Pittsburgh Penguins: 10 Keys to a Successful Rest of the Season

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    Fighting an uphill battle all season long, the Pittsburgh Penguins have managed to compile a 19-11-4 record—fifth best among Eastern Conference teams. 

    Despite the cards being stacked against them, coach Dan Bylsma has kept his team calm and composed. 

    Here are the top ten questions about the Penguins that will be answered over the next four months. 

When Will Crosby Be Back?

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    When will Sidney Crosby will be back? 

    The team has been resilient without him all year long, but there was no mistake that they gained something incredible when No. 87 was on the ice for eight games this year. 

    Crosby's value transcends that of most other hockey players.

    Not only does he make linemates Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz better, Crosby is usually matched up with the other team's best defensive pairing, freeing up a bit of room for Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal. 

    Out with concussion-like symptoms, it's hard for anyone to predict when Crosby might return. 

    Whether it be this year, or at a more distant point in time, the Penguins hope Crosby comes back for a significantly longer period of time than the eight games he played this year.

Can James Neal Stay Hot?

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    James Neal has had a knack for finding the back of the net the entire year.

    Neal has always been a hot starter, but we are already nearing the halfway point of the season. 

    With 34 games under his belt, Neal is just nine goals away from eclipsing his previous career high in goals, and one goal away from putting up his fourth career twenty-goal campaign. 

    If the Penguins are going to continue their winning ways, Neal has to continue to score like he did against Chicago's Ray Emery Wednesday night.

Will Simon Despres Stick Around?

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    With Kris Letang, Zbynek Michalek, and Paul Martin all on the shelf for the time being, rookie Simon Despres has had his opportunity to make a difference for the Penguins.

    And he really has made a difference.

    Despres is holding his own in the defensive zone, and he is effective in transitioning the puck up the ice to create plays.

    Also quick on his feet, Despres is capable of stepping up and providing offense, as he did on Dec. 16 when he scored his first NHL goal on the Sabres' Ryan Miller.

When Will Letang Return?

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    When Kris Letang was blindsided by Canadiens' forward Max Pacioretty on Nov. 26, the Penguins probably didn't think it would be the last they would see of him for at least a month.

    Well, actually, it wasn't.  Letang returned to the ice in overtime, bloody jersey and all, and poked in the game-winning goal.

    But perhaps this was not the greatest decision by the Penguins training staff, considering Letang has been on the shelf with a concussion ever since.

    It seems obvious that the Penguins would be very careful with their top defenseman, considering the current Crosby situation. 

    The Penguins are hoping their power play quarterback gets well soon.

Can Tyler Kennedy Break out of His Funk?

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    In the absence of Crosby last year, Tyler Kennedy stepped up his game.  Turning in a career-high 21-goal, 45-point campaign, the Penguins made it a point to re-sign the 25-year-old winger this offseason.

    Although a 21-goal season probably was not expected again, before his goal Wednesday night, Kennedy had not scored in 10 straight games, and only tallied three assists during that time period. 

    Kennedy is a lightning rod for the Penguins.  He doesn't need to get on the scoring sheet like he did last year, but he needs to improve on his current pace.

Will Matt Cooke Continue to Be the New Matt Cooke?

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    Matt Cooke has refined his game. 

    After a dangerous hit on the Rangers' Ryan McDonagh last year, Cooke was sidelined for the remainder of the season and the playoffs.

    Cooke realized he needed to change his game.  And he did.

    He has not had a major penalty all year, and has avoided making bad headlines for the league. 

    Cooke has been a valuable penalty killer for the Pens, and has done a bit of scoring as well.

    Cooke has convinced Penguins fans that people can indeed change.  While others may not be so certain, perhaps another four months of clean play will convince them.

Can Staal Stay Healthy?

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    Obviously, there is a familiar theme in many of these questions: injuries.

    Jordan Staal seems like he is always a game-time decision.  When he is playing, Staal is a force to be reckoned with. 

    The big centerman is one of the best penalty killers in the game.  His scoring touch may not be on par with the likes of Malkin and Crosby, but the former first-round pick is no slouch around the opposition's cage. 

    While Staal is scoreless in his last seven games, he had compiled 18 points in the 22 games previous to his current scoring drought. 

    Staal has missed three of the last five games. 

Can Dupuis Keep Scoring?

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    With just three points in the month of December, Pascal Dupuis' stock is dropping fast. 

    Dupuis got off to a hot start this season, and he certainly didn't cool off with the return of linemate Crosby. 

    Since Crosby's departure, however, Dupuis has not been able to maintain his scoring touch.  Before the month of December started, Dupuis tallied 20 points in 25 games. 

    It could just be a rough month for Dupuis, but he would like to get back to his scoring ways of earlier this year.  Crosby, or no Crosby.

Will Divisional Opponents Stay Strong?

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    The Penguins are currently ranked third in their division with 42 points, despite having played more games than both the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers

    It would be hard to imagine either team having a major collapse, as both teams infused their roster with an influx of talent during the offseason.

    The Rangers did it by grabbing Brad Richards.  The Flyers snagged the top goaltender in the market, Ilya Bryzgalov, who—thanks to HBO's "24/7" program—now has the nickname "The Universe."

    The Penguins are going to have to find a way to beat two of their toughest opponents. 

    If Pittsburgh can't do it during the regular season, they are more than likely going to have to find a way to do it during the playoffs.

Will Ray Shero Make a Move at the Deadline?

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    Last year, Penguins' GM Ray Shero dealt Alex Goligoski to the Dallas Stars for James Neal and Matt Niskanen. 

    Shero intended on giving Crosby the talented winger that he never had, although Neal never got the chance to team up with Crosby last year.

    If the Penguins will not have Crosby for the playoffs this year (which at this time is undetermined), will Shero make another move? 

    It would most likely be a more short-sighted deal than the Goligoski trade—something to get the Pens over the hump come springtime.