With a renewed sense of purpose and the lockout a distant memory, the Pittsburgh Penguins are eager to return to the Consol Energy Center. The team’s early and hostile exit from the post season will serve as motivation for the 2013 season. This is a common sentiment that resonates with the entire Penguins roster. For Evgeni Malkin in particular, the 2013 season means a sharp focus on the NHL’s top prize.
“We had a great line, but we didn’t win the Stanley Cup. I want to win the Stanley Cup again. It’s my target right now,” he told the media after a practice. “I’m ready. I’m in good shape. I’m ready to play Philadelphia. The first game we’ve got to start hard with lots of hits. I have no injuries, nothing is sore. I’m ready to play.”
The Penguins forward is the reigning NHL MVP following a brilliant season, tallying 50 goals and 109 points. Further, Malkin’s efforts were celebrated at the NHL Awards, which saw the Russian claim the scoring title and most outstanding player. He validated his reputation with a show of prowess in a three month stint with Magnitogorsk in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), earning 23 goals and 65 points in 37 games.
“I worked every day, practices and games,” said Malkin. “One big change is just the bigger ice (surface). I needed a couple games to (adapt) because of the bigger ice and more skilled guys. There’s not as much shooting, more passing.”
Malkin is a crucial piece of the Penguins’ effective and dangerous offensive core. His work ethic, quick hands, ability to create scoring opportunities, and above all, disciplined play circumvent the Penguins’ chances of hoisting Lord Stanley. His time spent in the KHL is an opportunity to hone his skills and perfect his craft in a new and challenging environment. To the Penguins’ staff, this speaks volumes about Malkin’s dedication to success and willingness to improve.
The Penguins will start the season on the road against a bitter and longstanding rival in the Philadelphia Flyers. Notorious for unsportsmanlike conduct and fractious style of play, the Flyers accumulate a significant amount of penalty minutes per game. With the addition of forward James Neal and defenseman Kris Letang on the points for the power play unit—a strategy that paid dividends last season—expect the Penguins to capitalize when afforded the extra attacker. Neal, with a league leading 18 powerplay goals last season, will serve as the lynchpin of the powerplay unit.
“I wouldn’t call (my position) the point. Letang is the point,” said Neal, who seldom played on the powerplay prior to joining the Penguins. “I’m a rover, a little bit of everywhere. I just want to find those seams. With (Malkin) and (Crosby) on the half wall, they’re so good at finding seams. I just have to get lost when (opponents are) focused on those two. Hopefully, it will work out. It’s just a look and we’ll see how it goes.
It is the hope that this maneuver will enhance the Penguins’ effectiveness on the powerplay—a unit that ranked fifth in the NHL last season with 19.7 success rate.
“He has a great shot. He knows those areas to find as far as getting open,” Crosby said following a practice at Consol Energy Center. “Guys with big shots, they can kind of get lost over there and get some space. It doesn’t take much for them to put it in the net. So it’ll be dangerous. With his shot, he’s going to get a lot of pucks through the net.”
Malkin’s readiness coupled with the unparalleled dexterity of captain Sidney Crosby and offensive capabilities of Neal, establishes the Pittsburgh Penguins as an offensive juggernaut in the Atlantic Division.
Turning to the club’s blue line, the Penguins have a variety of possibilities with nine defensemen vying for a spot in the rotation. Returning defensemen Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin, Kris Letang, and Matt Niskanen comprise the majority of the Penguins’ back end.
The departure of Zbynek Michalek—who was traded to Phoenix—creates an opportunity for the Penguins to select from the wealth of talent available in the AHL. Robert Bortuzzo, Simon Despres, Deryk Engelland, Ben Lovejoy, and Brian Strait are among those in the running. Bortuzzo and Strait have made strides with the Wilkes-Barre Scraton Penguins, the AHL affiliate of the Penguins, and have remained consistent for the club. Both blueliners are reliable, have playoff experience, and commit to a simple style—which can effectively balance the offensive-minded defensemen in Pittsburgh. Expect to see competition heat up between these two.
The Penguins’ goaltending tandem of returning netminder Marc Andre Fleury and new acquisition Tomas Vokoun can serve as a 1-2 punch for the club. With a tight forty-two game season, the Penguins can shuffle the responsibility between the two goalies without comprising performance.
It is without a doubt that the Pittsburgh Penguins will be a force in the Atlantic Division. Bench boss Dan Bylsma is confident in the talents and capabilities of his roster and ultimately recognizes their potential for success. How successful the Penguins will be remains to be seen, but the future does look bright.