Pittsburgh Penguins: Three Things that Must Continue in Round Two by @griffTHW - PensInitiative | Pittsburgh Penguins Blog | Rumors | News

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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Pittsburgh Penguins: Three Things that Must Continue in Round Two by @griffTHW

For a second consecutive year, the Penguins squared off against what most would consider a largely inferior first round opponent.  That's not meant as a knock on Columbus, a team clearly in store for an incredibly bright future.  It's just that the Blue Jackets figured to find themselves outmatched in terms of skill and experience, to struggle with a Pens team that dominated the regular season series between the two squads. 

The Penguins, however, hardly rolled over the Jackets, requiring six hard fought contests to finally eliminate their up-and-coming divisional rival.  Thus, after surviving a wildly entertaining series in which no lead appeared safe, the Pens will move on, preparing for either the Rangers or Flyers.

The exact recipe for success will depend on Pittsburgh's eventual opponent but, for now, we present three areas in which the Pens must continue to excel if the team hopes to find success in the next round.

The Play of Marc-Andre Fleury

His postseason numbers (2.81 GAA and .908 save percentage) may not jump off the page but, more often than not, Marc-Andre Fleury stood tall when the Pens needed him most in their first round series against Columbus.  Because, save for a tumultuous end to Game 4, the oft-maligned goaltender consistently bailed out a Pittsburgh squad that struggled for long stretches with the upstart Jackets.

So, with all due respect to Brandon Sutter, Paul Martin and Matt Niskanen (all of whom turned in solid performances), it was mostly The Flower's steady play between the pipes that propelled Pittsburgh into the second round.  Whether it came in the form of key saves that served to keep the Penguins in a contest they trailed or the various stops that helped shut the door on a furious Columbus barrage late in Game 6, Fleury came through in the clutch.

"He's been really good. I mean, really good. Could he have made more saves? Sure. But a lot more could have gone in, too. We were back on our heels. We gave Calvert a breakaway. He was just great. He doesn't panic. Nothing seems to rattle him." - Matt Niskanen, following Game 6
As a result, Fleury successfully backstopped the Penguins through the first round for the first time since 2010.  Not coincidentally, it was the first series in four years that he posted better than a .900 save percentage.

If he can maintain that effort, that composure, and provide timely saves and steady play, he'll afford the Penguins an opportunity to find further success in these playoffs.  And, that's really all the team or its fans can ask of him.

Scoring by Committee

The Penguins are a top-heavy team, the product of several high profile stars skating together during a season handicapped by a reduced salary cap.  The result is a team that clearly possesses less forward depth than it ever has since ascending to the status of a perennial contender.  So, it follows that question marks abound regarding whether or not the supporting cast can prove strong enough to help this club on its quest for a long, successful playoff run.

Well, for at least one round, that perceived weakness transformed into a strength.  Because, with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin struggling to find the back of the net (maybe you heard about that; a few people broached the subject), 12 different Penguins tallied a total of 21 markers against the Jackets.  And, entering Wednesday's action, only Anaheim employed more players (13) who lit the lamp throughout the first round.

From star wingers to bottom-six forwards to various blue liners, virtually everyone contributed.  Throw in the fact that the club received 14 points between Crosby and Martin without either contributing a goal and it's clear that offense was manufactured up and down the lineup.

Last year, when Crosby and Malkin's production dried up against Boston, Pittsburgh's postseason run went off the rails, as the club mustered only two goals in an embarrassing four game sweep.  But, if the Pens can continue to enjoy production from almost everyone, they'll prove much more difficult to handle as the playoffs move along.

Even Strength Production

It wasn't always pretty, but the Penguins answered their critics regarding another weakness against Columbus, at least temporarily.  

Virtually all season, Pittsburgh was an average team at even strength.  What set the team apart, especially early in the year, came as a result of exemplary special teams play.  Boasting a power play and penalty kill that each hovered around the top of the circuit throughout the season set the Penguins apart, allowing them to run away and hide with the Metropolitan Division crown.

But what would happen in the playoffs?  Would five-on-five play spell the club's demise?

Well, not in the first round.  In fact, the Penguins actually struggled on special teams against Columbus.  Sure, they potted six power play goals but they also gave up three short handed markers.  And, their penalty killing was atrocious, surrendering seven tallies to the Jackets' power play while killing only 74.1% of the man advantage opportunities against.

But, at even strength, five-on-five?  The Penguins outscored Columbus 12-8.  And, in such a close, hard fought series in which Pittsburgh outscored the Jackets 21-18, that even strength margin proved to be the difference.  

If that trend continues, and the Pens can correct their recent special teams' woes, they may just find a recipe for success moving forward.

Be sure to check back Thursday when we'll highlight three things the Pens must improve upon in order to find success in the second round.




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