- Scott Burnside, NHL
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Even when they're without a star or two, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been tough to beat. With the team at full strength you get the idea. Here are five reasons the Pens should be considered favorites to win the Stanley Cup:
1. The Pens play in the Eastern Conference
It's that simple. With all due respect to the red-hot Washington Capitals and New York Islanders as well as the plucky Ottawa Senators and the perplexing New York Rangers, the depth of talent in the Western Conference -- where the Chicago Blackhawks will start the playoffs as the favorites -- makes the path to the Stanley Cup finals, at least on paper, much more arduous. The reality is that you can make a case for almost every team in the West, especially the Anaheim Ducks, St. Louis Blues, Vancouver Canucks, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks, to be the conference's representative in the finals. In the Eastern Conference, there are simply more teams with more flaws that, again in theory, can be exploited by a deep, talented team such as the Penguins. Doesn't mean it will turn out that way, but it doesn't mean the logic is wrong to start with either.
2. Pittsburgh doesn't need Fleury to 'steal' a series
People will point to last year's performance by Marc-Andre Fleury and suggest that he is the Achilles' heel of the Penguins. Maybe. There's no getting around the fact Fleury was awful in the Pens' six-game opening-round loss to the Philadelphia Flyers last spring, sporting a 4.63 GAA. But Fleury has been very good this season, getting wins in 21 of his past 27 decisions and finishing tied for fourth with 23 victories. It may be oversimplifying things, but Fleury doesn't need to steal a series given the explosiveness that the Pens' lineup represents -- or, at least, he shouldn't have to. But he can't throw one away. We doubt that's going to happen two years in a row, and folks need to recall that Fleury won 30 postseason games in 2008 and 2009. The Pens also have a more than adequate Plan B in Tomas Vokoun, who played well down the stretch and finished with a 13-4 record with a .919 save percentage. If Vokoun sees much action in the playoffs, it won't be good news for the Pens. But given his level of play, it shouldn't be cataclysmic.
3. Several of them have been there before
If playoff success is related in some fashion to leadership, to guys who can play on the big stage, guys who don't recoil from big stakes, then surely guys such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jarome Iginla, Chris Kunitz, Brenden Morrow, Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik, to name a few, should keep the Pens' ship pointed in the right direction. Given the individual and team awards connected to these players, the Pens are fairly awash in leadership and skill. It's no secret that the Flyers were able to get Pittsburgh off its game last spring, and that, coupled with the poor goaltending the Pens received from Fleury, allowed Philadelphia to upset the favored Pens. It's simply hard to see that happening two years in a row, especially given not just the depth but also the maturity on the roster.
4. Healthy Penguins are dangerous Penguins
If, as expected, the Pens hit the playoffs with a full and healthy lineup, there isn't a team that can match their depth -- and I'm not just talking about offensive depth, although the Pens led the league in scoring. At one point heading into the final week of the regular season, they had won 21 of 23 games, and the bulk of that impressive stretch was traveled without some combination of Crosby, Malkin, James Neal, Letang and defenseman Paul Martin, who has been an important part of a solid blue-line corps playing mostly with Orpik. By the end of the regular season, all but Crosby had returned to action, and Crosby was practicing with the team. (He suffered a broken jaw that cost him the final month of the regular season and the NHL scoring title.) Having a full complement of players at his disposal will make for some challenging times for coach Dan Bylsma, but he deftly handled such a lineup en route to the team's Stanley Cup win in 2009. The question that has no answer at this stage: How durable is this team, especially with so many top-end players returning late from various injuries? What does seem clear is that if the Pens were a force without a full lineup, they are something significantly more with every piece in place.
5. Trade deadline additions adapt to Penguin way
One thing follows another, and so it is that the players acquired by GM Ray Shero at the trade deadline have seemingly been able to easily and quickly acclimate themselves to the Penguin way. It helped that, thanks to injuries to so many regulars, they were able to be instantly inserted into the lineup. So it was that former captains Morrow (Dallas Stars) and Iginla (Calgary Flames) were put into important roles upon their arrivals. Iginla has helped a power play that ranked second in the league, and he had 11 points in 13 games with the Pens, including four power-play markers. Jussi Jokinen, added from the Carolina Hurricanes at the deadline, has proved to be a useful player, can play center or wing and can be moved up and down the lineup, while hard-hitting Douglas Murray has fit in nicely on the blue line of a team that was looking to become harder to play against. There is always a danger when introducing a number of new components, especially in a shortened season, but the Pens were able to give the new players instant responsibility. The results have been impressive, something that should bode well for the team in the playoffs, when contributions from every area of the lineup are key to a long run.
The Penguins are more than Sidney Crosby and a dynamic offense, and that is just one of five reasons Scott Burnside cites for Pittsburgh being the favorite going into the playoffs.