It's been a long while since we've focused on the Pittsburgh Penguins' season instead of the Olympics, but with just three meaningful games left in the tournament, and practice back in session for the non-Olympians, let's take a look at five questions whose answers may just define the Penguins season from March to (hopefully) mid-June.
What's the Olympic fallout going to be?
--Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar return to the Penguins bitterly disappointed and without a medal. Will they sulk through the rest of the season or be determined to redeem themselves for a better finish in the Stanley Cup playoffs? Brooks Orpik and Sidney Crosby have now advanced deep into Olympic play, will they be tired down the stretch or reinvigorated by their success? And how will have lengthy vacations for veterans like Bill Guerin, Chris Kunitz, Max Talbot and Jay McKee? They've all been a little nicked up, will the break have done them a wonder of good.
See the other four keys to what's left of the season behind the jump....
Will the defense hold?
--Early in the season the Penguins had a lot of injuries, a natural reason for some defensive inconsistencies. But lately everyone's been healthy, yet they haven't played well. McKee isn't blocking as many shots, Alex Goligoski hasn't scored a goal since November 3rd, Mark Eaton's showing characteristic lapses in his coverages, and the Penguins are bouncing around Orpik between Sergei Gonchar and Kris Letang as the Pens try to find a partner. Which might tie in to...
Can Ray Shero add a touch to the team at the trade deadline?
--It's not going to be easy; the Penguins are right snug against the salary cap and there aren't too many sellers, which is going to make the price high. Plus the trading deadline is about 48 hours after business re-opens, it's going to be a mad shuffle.at the market. Ray Shero's worked his magic for two years in a row at the trading deadline, can he do it again? And if he can't work a reasonable deal.
Will the wingers bounce back?
--If Shero adds a top 6 winger this would help, but injuries have made Kunitz and Talbot shells of themselves this season. Ruslan Fedotenko has also had a mainly down season production wise and Guerin has shown signs of his age (though he is 3rd on the team in goals). Obviously the Pens will take their strength down the middle with Crosby-Malkin-Jordan Staal as the unmatched top center trio in the league, but last season's playoff success was greatly fueled by contributions from wingers in the playoffs. The big dogs can only do so much in a team sport during a seven game series.
How will the Pens jockey for playoff positioning end?
--It's looking like the Penguins have only a few possibilities to enter the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs: they surpass the New Jersey Devils and win the Atlantic Division, and probably earn the #3 seed or the #2 seed if they stay above the Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres (the top one figures to win the Northeastern Division). In that case the Pens will face a #6 or #7 team which could be basically any number of the second tier contenders in the mad chase for the playoffs.
If Pittsburgh can't beat New Jersey down the stretch for the Atlantic, they'll like be in the #4 or #5 hole, depending on if they finish above the loser of the Buffalo/Ottawa race. In this scenario, Pittsburgh would likely play the loser of that NE race in the first round, and then they'd see the #1 seed Washington in the second round (assuming the Pens and all other top seeds advance).