When the Olympic break began, the Pittsburgh Penguins were sitting on top of the Eastern Conference with the conference’s best record. Now with Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz, Jussi Jokinen, and Olli Maatta returning with some hardware from Sochi, it’s time for the team to resume their NHL schedule Thursday night against the Montreal Canadiens.
However, the announcement of Paul Martin’s hand injury and the fact that there is no timetable for Kris Letang’s return from his stroke means that the Penguins will be shorthanded defensively during the final stretch. With Martin and Letang out for the foreseeable future, the Penguins will have to rely on young defensemen like Robert Bortuzzo and Simon Despres as they gear up for the playoffs. Considering the fact that Maatta is also only 19, Pittsburgh may be sporting three defensemen under the age of 24. This inexperience in the back end could end up harming the Pens in the long run.
As the Penguins have learned well over their last few playoff runs, a strong offense, which the team has once again, cannot propel a team to the Stanley Cup. They need to have an excellent defense as well. The Penguins were plagued with poor defensive and goaltending performances in the playoffs in 2011 and 2012. Ironically, last season it was their offense that was stymied as they only managed to score two goals in the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston. However, considering they have two of the best players in the league in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, it’s unlikely that that problem will repeat itself this time around.
A bigger cause for concern will be the defense. They need to protect the Penguins’ goaltending situation as much as possible. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury hasn’t exactly been any good in the playoffs over the last two years. Last season, he was pulled in favor of backup Tomas Vokoun, who is still out with a blood clot. The year before, he was horrendous with a .834 save percentage and a goals against average of 4.63 in a 4-2 series loss to Philadelphia. Those six games produced 56 goals and as a result it was also the highest scoring series in NHL playoff history. All of this means that the losses to Martin and Letang will put even more pressure on Fleury, who has an awful track record over the last few years.
The Penguins can’t find themselves in track meets with their opponents in the playoffs. They may have the best offense in the Eastern Conference with a 186 goals scored this season, but goals are going to be harder to come by the deeper they get into the playoffs. Most successful teams have great goaltending in the deep stages of the playoffs. Last season, Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins played a major role in holding the Penguins to two goals in the Eastern Conference Finals. The year before, Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings was lights out with a .946 save percentage, three shutouts, and a 1.41 goals against average.
The point is, it becomes more difficult to score goals in May and June. This means that the Penguins will be in deep trouble if Martin and Letang aren’t able to return at a 100 percent level by then. Their defense has to be able to protect the Penguins’ shaky goaltending situation and be able to take some pressure on the explosive offense.
All of that said, the Penguins have already dealt with numerous injuries on the defensive side this year. The only defenseman to have played all 58 games thus far is Matt Niskanen. This means that guys like Bortuzzo, Despres, and even lesser experienced players like Philip Samuelsson and Brian Dumoulin have all gotten their feet wet in the NHL level.
But still, the Penguins would much rather have proven NHL veterans in the lineup when the playoffs roll in.