With their win on Thursday, the Pittsburgh Penguins have once again made it to the playoffs.
The Penguins are about to begin their 13th straight postseason and hope to avenge their loss last season to rivals and eventual Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals. The Capitals have clinched the Metropolitan Division and look poised to put forward a solid defense of their first title. The Penguins on the other hand, have some question marks. Here are the three biggest questions that could haunt the Penguins throughout this postseason:
1) Can the Penguins stay healthy?
The Penguins seem to have an issue staying healthy this season. With significant games missed by Schultz, Murray, Letang, Dumoulin, Maatta, Malkin, Aston-Reese, and many others, the Penguins are a team that has dealt with a continuous shuffle of the deck throughout the season. Accounting for one of your top forward missing or entire top-pairing missing is no easy task and the Penguins have risen to the occasion to, at the very least, secure a playoff spot. The question now becomes, will they be able to remain healthy during a playoff series? With Malkin and Letang now back, Schultz back for over a month, Murray fully healthy, and everyone else minus Zach Aston-Reese and Brian Dumoulin the Penguins appear ready to enter the postseason firing on most cylinders.
2) Will we see consistent lines/pairings?
As mentioned above, trying to find consistent pairs or linemates has been a challenge for the Penguins this regular season. Outside of Jake Guentzel putting up a career year riding alongside Sidney Crosby, the rest of the forward lines have appeared like they were selected out of a bingo ball cage. Bryan Rust, Jared McCann, Phil Kessel, Nick Bjugstad, Patric Hornqvist, and almost every other winger on the team seems to have started games alongside Crosby and Guentzel on the top line. This has made the rest of the forward group a mishmash of centers and wings, dependent on who’s healthy and who’s playing on the top line. Will the Penguins, with a generally healthy line-up, be able to actually find consistency in the forward group?
On defense, the picture isn’t much rosier. Anchored, and not in the good way, by Jack Johnson, which has appeared in every Penguins game this season, the Penguins defense corps has been a seen rotating roster not matched in the NHL this year. Some of this has obviously been due to the absence of Justin Schultz, then later Olli Maatta, then later Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin, but also due to the inability of Penguins coach Mike Sullivan to find a playing partner for Jack Johnson that didn’t bring down the team while keeping him in the line-up.
3) Will the Jekyll/Hyde Penguins return?
Prior to this year’s trade deadline, this author wrote a piece called “Pittsburgh Penguins: Is this Team Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde?” where I called into question which team fans would be subject to watching each night on the ice? The Penguins team that can match goals with any team in the league, or the Penguins team that looks like it would rather be anywhere else than playing?
Even though the Penguins have shown a considerably more consistent effort since the trade deadline, they still have the tendency to take off games. The recent home and home against the lowly Detroit Red Wings is a perfect example. Going in the series, all they needed was a win to clinch a playoff spot. In the first game with Detroit, they came out of the game playing a well-enough game, to only give up a goal and then another, and never recover. The next game, it appeared to be the same story, but this time the Penguins fought back and got the points and clinched a playoff spot. Is there any way for Penguins fans to know which team will show up in the playoffs? It appears not possible at this juncture.