It's a month into the season and the Pittsburgh Penguins find themselves atop the Metropolitan Division and leading the Eastern Conference in points. While it's a start any team will gladly take, it's not cause for celebration, not with the expectations the Pens face. In fact, nothing this team does in the regular season really matters that much. If they dominate the league it's to be expected, and even if they struggle it's nearly impossible to imagine them falling out of the playoff picture.
No, this is a team that will once again be judged by what they do once the regular season ends, perhaps more so than any other team in the league. That's what comes from having the best player in the game on your roster, and from winning the Stanley Cup with such a young core that it sparked talks of a possible dynasty that never materialized. But while it's too early to see if the Penguins can correct the mistakes that have ended their past seasons earlier than expected, it's not too early to see how those phases of the game are faring so far in the 2013-14 season.
Goaltending has been the biggest problem the Penguins have faced in the playoffs since winning the Stanley Cup as Marc-Andre Fleury has failed to post a save percentage above 0.900 in the past 4 postseasons and has failed to replicate his regular season success. While some of the blame can be attributed to the defense and system in front of him, Tomas Vokoun managed to excel after getting the start in Game 5 against the Islanders, posting a 2.01 GAA average and 0.933 save percentage, showing that the fluke goals and bad bounces weren't entirely out of the goaltender's hands.
But with Vokoun's status up in the air, it's becoming more likely that the Penguins will have no choice but to rely on Fleury to make a deep run in the playoffs. While the true test will lie in April, May, and June, Marc-Andre Fleury has been noticeably improved to start the season. A 2.07 GAA and a 0.920 save percentage are at or better than his career bests, and this comes on the heels of a 5 goal loss to the Rangers that dropped those totals from an outstanding 1.83 GAA and a 0.929 save percentage. Well publicized sessions with a sports psychologist get a lot of credit for the hot start, but an organizational switch to Mike Bales as the goaltender coach has had outstanding results. Marc-Andre Fleury has always possessed elite athleticism, but this season he's been much improved from a technical standpoint. He's squaring up to shooters better and finding himself in better position and relying on his athleticism more as a last resort. It remains to be seen whether these changes lead to postseason success, but the early returns are promising.
While it's easy to chalk up the power play struggles the Penguins had against the Lightning in 2011 to having two of the best players in the world out of the lineup with injuries, it's unfathomable that a professional team could go 1 for 35 (2.9%) regardless of who's on the gameday roster. Still, it was written off as bad luck, and the Pittsburgh finished 5th in 2011-12 (19.7%) and 2nd in 2013 (24.7%) with the man advantage. However, none of that mattered in the Eastern Conference Finals as the Penguins managed 2 goals in 4 games while converting on 0 of 15 power play opportunities. With the majority of the series being played either tied or with a 1 goal Boston lead, a power play goal would have been a huge swing in the gameplay as it would have forced the Bruins to more actively attempt to generate offense and abandon the 2-3 neutral zone trap that completely disrupted Pittsburgh's zone entries and suffocated what little offensive threat they managed to produce.
While Pittsburgh currently ranks 10th in the league in power play success, they're still scoring 20.7% of the time and a larger sample size will give more realistic and sustainable results across the NHL. This comes despite James Neal missing all but a few minutes so far this season and Kris Letang missing the first 9 games. Neal has turned into one of the best scorers in the league while on the power play, and his quick release, elite wrist shot, and ability to find the soft spots in the defense make him ideally suited for finding opportunities to score. It's easy to point to Bylsma disrupting the chemistry of the power play by inserting Iginla and taking off Neal with a healthy roster as the reason for their lack of success against the Bruins, just as similar arguments can be made about the Tampa series, but at the end of the day the unstructured nature of the Pens power play that can make them so effective is the same thing that can leave the players looking so helpless. The ability of Crosby and Malkin to make plays with the puck allows them to pull off things very few players could get away with, but against a defense successfully pressuring the puck and disrupting the passing plays the Penguins spend an inordinate amount of their power play time retrieving the puck from their own end. The top power play should be able to score against anyone, but when they aren't the coaches need to be more proactive in changing gears and finding new ways to attack the defense.
The Penguins under Dan Bylsma haven't been the most disciplined team in the league as they've shown a tendency to take stupid penalties, both in the offensive zone and out of laziness in the defensive zone. Some times have been worse than others, but as a team they've finished 19th, 12th, 29th, and 25th in penalty minutes during the past 4 seasons. Things reached their worst point during the 2012 playoffs against the Flyers, as they amassed 149 PIM in just 6 games while compounding the problem by killing just 11 of 23 power plays against them (47.8%).
The most aggravating thing about the penalties is how many of them appeared to be out of frustration or retaliation. Teams can work on better positioning themselves so that they aren't taking penalties to prevent great scoring chances, but it's much harder to eliminate the thoughtless penalties that serve no purpose other than to blow off steam. While the season is still young, the Penguins have managed to stay out of the penalty box much more than they have in recent seasons as they're 6th in the league in PIM per game. It remains to be seen whether they can keep this up, but the Penguins have struggled maintaining their composure in recent years with teams initiating chippy, borderline dirty play, and if they've managed to turn the corner where those tactics won't throw them off their game then they will be a much harder team to beat in a seven game series.