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Behind Enemy Lines: Pittsburgh Penguins cruising toward the postseason

The defending Stanley Cup Champions are in Raleigh for their final visit of the season.

Winnipeg Jets v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Penguins enter play tonight on a two game losing streak, but that streak is only a blip on the radar as the Stanley Cup Champions set their sites on defending their crown in the Stanley Cup playoffs come April. The Penguins have used their team speed and skill combined with a league-best 204 goals this season to overwhelm many of their opponents in route to a 36-14-8 record, good for third best in the NHL. Led by their usual top performers, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins return to the scene of one of their more heinous dominations of the season, a 7-1 laugher over the Hurricanes on January 20th.

For the Penguins, the offensive contributors basically read like a full rundown of their roster, as they have 11 players who have contributed more than 20 points, and three players with more than 50, with Phil Kessel joining Crosby and Malkin. That being said, the real breakouts have come from two players who will not take the ice this evening due to injury. Conor Sheary is on injured reserve with an upper-body injury which interrupts a first full NHL season which has seen Sheary collect 35 points in just 42 games. Defenseman Justin Schultz has been a major contributor on offense as well, garnering 39 points (including 30 via assist) in what has become a breakout for a player who was highly touted, but did not truly blossom until his arrival in the Steel City. His recent concussion, however, has halted that momentum, and his return to the lineup is undetermined as of now. Without performers like Schultz and Sheary, many team would have a noticeable drop in firepower, but the Pens have proven that scoring is something they can provide from many different sources.

As you likely know, the key to the Penguins resurgence in the second half last season, which propelled them all the way to the Stanley Cup, was a strategic switch that aligned with the ascension of Head Coach Mike Sullivan to his post. After making a trade with Anaheim to send David Perron out in return for speedster Carl Hagelin, the directive was clear: Speed, speed, and more speed. The Penguins made a conscious effort to utilize what had become their defining characteristic, their elite team speed. Not only did they at that point have burners on the wing in Hagelin, Kessel, Patric Hornqvist and the rising Sheary, but they also had and continue to have tremendous speed and quickness on their blueline in players such as Kris Letang, Olli Maatta, Schultz and Trevor Daley.

With that speed combining with transcendent talents such as Crosby and Malkin in the middle of the ice, a dangerous attack was born. Add in a wiley veteran such as Matt Cullen - the former Hurricane is considered one of the better faceoff men, even at age 40 - and Nick Bonino, and the Penguins possess one of the better combinations of centers in the league as well.

In net, the Penguins face an interesting situation. They have played what amounts to a platoon with Matt Murray and veteran Marc-Andre Fleury. Murray has proven more effective thus far, with a .924 save percentage, but the presence of Fleury provides the Penguins with insurance should Murray go down with an injury or falter in performance. For a team with their sights set on repeating as Stanley Cup Champions, security in net is paramount.

But with the pending Expansion Draft ahead, and one season under contract remaining for Fleury, the Penguins run the risk of losing him for nothing should he remain with the team and be left unprotected for the Expansion Draft. If they wished, they could look to fortify their roster by making a trade from this goaltending depth. All of this leads to an interesting final few days before the trade deadline for the Penguins.

For tonight’s game, matching or at least counter-acting the speed of the Pens is of the utmost importance. Expect heavy minutes for Jordan Staal as he looks to lock down the middle of the ice with the likes of Crosby or Malkin on the ice for well over half the game.

Meeting the speed of the wingers with the defenseman will also be a big factor. Can the Canes’ not allow the offensive punch on the rush that these wingers seem to provide on a nightly basis for the Pens? Big games will be needed from Noah Hanifin, Brett Pesce, and either Klas Dahlbeck or Matt Tennyson, whomever is in the lineup. These D-men have not been at their best recently, but to compete tonight the Canes’ will need the A-game from each of these contributors.

While the Canes have been in a tailspin, a terrific performance tonight would perhaps be the confidence boost and energy that they need to jump-start a much needed streak.

What to Watch For

  • We already mentioned Jordan Staal as a key in terms of helping keep Crosby and Malkin in check. He will not be able to be on the ice for each of them though. Whomever the other center is that draws this tough defensive assignment will be a very big key. Look for either Victor Rask or possibly even Teuvo Teravainen to draw this unenviable task.
  • If you want any chance to win this game if you are Carolina, winning the special teams battle is enormous. The Penguins sport the sixth best Power Play in the league, but only the 22nd best Penalty Kill. Being a plus team on special teams is a major key to victory tonight.
  • As it is against most teams, playing from ahead is important. This is especially true against the Penguins. The Penguins are a robust 23-0-1 when leading after two periods. Playing catch-up against this team spells almost certain disaster.