As part of the SB Nation NHL preview, we were tasked to ask three questions about the Pittsburgh Penguins to determine the season. Now that the year is almost over, let's look back and see how the questions answered themselves.
1. What do the Penguins get out of Marc-Andre Fleury?
"This is the million dollar question, especially now with the state of Tomas Vokoun (blood clots) in so much question. Pittsburgh has lost their steady veteran backup, so now it's all up to Fleury.
And if anyone has any idea what to expect, they're lying. Fleury has posted an above league average save percentage in five of the last eight regular seasons, and in the past two regular seasons he's been one of the Pens best players with a 65-25-4 record and a .914 save %."
The answer: Fleury posted another very solid regular season (39-18-4, 2.35 GAA, .917 save %, 5 shutouts). As we've seen almost exactly in past years in the regular season, MAF did his job and did everything that the Pens could ask for as so many other players went down with injury.
The bigger surprise has been the emergence of Jeff Zatkoff, who made his NHL debut and was a capable backup (12-6-1, 2.66 GAA, .911 save %, 1 shutout). The Pens didn't often use him in the early parts of the season, but he's built up trust and earned a few more starts as the season went on.
But now, of course...What happens to Fleury in the playoffs will matter a whole lot more than the 82 games that came first. Fleury needs to keep on his roll of solid play and provide that level of play in a playoff series, to earn his first playoff series win since 2010.
2. Who plays on the wing with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal?
In the long-term the answer is Beau Bennett, who at 21 years old made a splash in the NHL last season as a good looking rookie and rare display of a forward that the Penguins have developed recently.
In the short-term, the answer looks like Jussi Jokinen. A former 30 goal scorer, Jokinen has 579 games of NHL experience to Bennett's 26. When it comes to a "top 6" player, a team is looking for a reliable guy to be counted on to produce and let's remember that Beau Bennett has 2 even-strength goals in his NHL career. He's a really promising and skilled player, but he's as green and untested as he is talented.
The answer: It was mostly Jokinen (19 goals, 36 assists) for 55 points in 79 games. Jokinen has played well in his stint as a Penguin and has only missed one game this year. That was needed, since James Neal missed 22 games with various injuries (and a suspension) and Evgeni Malkin is looking at missing 20-22 games this season as well.
It ended up being a lost year for Bennett, who suffered a wrist injury in November and was out until April. But, the silver lining could be that Bennett is on a line now with Sidney Crosby, and could potentially end up playing on the first line to start the NHL playoffs. Which works out for everyone.
3. Just how many goals will the Penguins score?
Last year the Penguins led the NHL, in scoring with 3.38 goals per game, while not surprisingly having one of the top power play units in the league (24.7% was 2nd best). And, even more impressively, they did it in spite of top players missing serious time to injury. Sidney Crosby, of course, was out the final 12 games of the season with a broken jaw, Evgeni Malkin missed 17 games (and played more with a shoulder that wasn't 100%) and the two top scoring defensemen on the team (Kris Letang and Paul Martin) combined to miss 27 games with various injuries.
This season, with any luck from health, the Penguins should once again compete to be one of the highest scoring teams in the league.
The answer: Despite the injuries, the Pens still ended up 6th in the league in goals/game (2.96), on the strength of their #1 power play in the league and Crosby's 103 points. Due to injuries to Malkin, Neal and Letang, many goals were left of the table which would have pushed them up even higher. Offensively the Penguins ended up right about where we thought they would be heading into the year, which is probably all the more testament to guys who've set career highs like Chris Kunitz, Matt Niskanen and the solid seasons from Crosby and Jokinen.
What were the biggest surprises to the questions we had coming into the season?