Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Five Factors for Penguins Playoffs

Evgeni Malkin is out for the rest of the season and that presents some issues for the moribund Pittsburgh Penguins.  A perennial playoff team, suddenly there's a distinct possibility that they may miss out on the post season.  These are the five things that must happen for the Penguins to make the playoffs.

5.) The Fleury/Murray Connection

To start the season, the doldrums of the Mike Johnston era, Marc-Andre Fleury was one of the few shining stars of the Penguins.  With the Pens playing a defensive style, he had more help but he was also asked to carry a team who was scoring just over two goals per game.

Fleury, and Murray, will
need to up their game
Understandably, Fleury's numbers have slipped since Mike Sullivan took over.  A more free wheeling game, along with an emphasis on defense stepping in to the play with the additions (both internally and externally) of Derrick Pouliot, Trevor Daley, and Justin Schultz (more on him in a bit) mean less defensive help and more of the goaltenders doing it on their own.

And over-dependence on Fleury, shielding the below replacement level Jeff Zatkoff, may have worn him down.  Now that Matt Murray is backing up Fleury, it's time for him to rest and for both of them to up their game.  Even a small increase in their save percentages and and small drop in their goals against average means the different of two to four points.  At a time when all points matter, this is huge.

4.) Bottom Six Bottom Line

On Monday the Penguins invested in a resource they seemed to ignore in the Ray Shero era, the bottom six. Giving two year contract extensions, all one-way, to Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl, and Scott Wilson, the Penguins announced that they're not only in the market for controlled-cost but that they're ready for the Baby Pens to grow up.

Kuhnhackl, Rust, Wilson need to keep growing.
A shot in the arm since they arrived, the young players from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton have proven to be something the Penguins have needed.  Providing spark, speed, and lately scoring their cheap depth since arrival have made the difference in several games.

Blending in seamlessly with the big club, having learned Mike Sullivan's system across state, they give a continuity and familiarity that blends seamlessly with the seasoned veterans sprinkled in the bottom six.  They'll need to continue to chip in goals, boost the bottom line, and continue their growth to add the depth the Penguins need so it's no just "Sidney Crosby's team."

3.) More Thrill from Phil

When part of the two-headed monster has gone down in the past (which is far too often,
unfortunately), the onus fell on the other half to carry the load.  While it's a basic assumption/requirement that Sidney Crosby will have to step up, there's now a troika of offensive beasts, and the the third party needs to up his game.

Happy or not, Pens fans need more from Kessel
Whether you're happy with the trade for Phil Kessel or not, it's hard to say the transaction was a 100% rousing success.  While predictions of upwards of 50 goals for a season may have been unrealistic, what the team has been able to squeeze from Phil isn't exactly what had been hoped for.

While some of this falls on the early Johnston days, with his production improving under Sullivan, it's time for fans to see more of Phil the Thrill.  Perhaps a harken back to his best days, where he carried the line as he will with Geno out, will help him.  Making the second line now HIS line could put some spark back in his step.

2.) Justin Schultz: X-Factor

The difference between the Penguins power play with and without Evgeni Malkin is stark.  In the time Malkin missed before his most recent injury, they scored all of one goal with the man advantage.
Justin Schultz's rebuild is pivotal
for the Penguins
In the games of his return, they looked like a different unit.  Trade deadline acquisition Justin Schultz has been tasked with stepping in to Malkin's role.

When Schultz arrived in Pittsburgh, his confidence was shot.  Languishing on a perennially putrid Edmonton Oilers, management took time rebuilding him before letting him see the ice.  He seemed thrilled to be working with Sergei Gonchar on a team built to his style, and the results have been impressive.

Averaging .5 points per game, setting up deflection goals with an impressively accurate slap-pass, the early results are encouraging.  As the point man on a power play in need of some sort of scoring without the offensive creativity of Evgeni Malkin, his internal rebuild is crucial to the Penguins success.  As a blue line scoring threat and as a power play specialist, it becomes Justin Schultz's offense to lead.

1.) Geno Machino

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