With the All Star Game officially and mercifully in the rear-view mirror, it's time for the Pittsburgh Penguins to get back to work.
Here's how they sit in the playoff chase for the Eastern Conference:
In the interest of tidy lists and points, here's 5 important things to keep an eye on in the second half of the season.
1. Progress under Mike Sullivan
Per our @MikeDarnay the Penguins situation has totally reversed under Mike Sullivan.
Will these trends continue after the "honeymoon" phase of a new coach wears off and the grind of the season continues?
If the process remains strong and the skill players keep generating the scoring chances, hopefully the points which have stacked up in recent games will continue.
- Sidney Crosby: points in 7 straight (5g+5a), goals in 3 straight
- Kris Letang:points in 27 of last 29 games (5g+24a)
- Patric Hornqvist: 14 points (4g+10a) in last 12 games
- Phil Kessel: 9 points (4g+5a) in last 9 games
- Evgeni Malkin: 8 points (4g+4a) in last 6 games
The Pens top offensive players have been red-hot lately after slow starts for all (except Malkin). Pittsburgh will need their main drivers of the offensive engines to continue producing points in the second half of the season/
2. Season Defining March
March is fitting to make or break the Pens season.
- 15 total games (8 home, 7 road)
- 11 division games (3 vs NYR, 2 vs. NYI and NJD and 1 a piece against Philly, Carolina, Washington, 'Lumbus). With the multiple games all coming against the most important teams in the playoff hunt (more on this below)
- 4 games in 6 days from March 3-8
- 5 games in 8 days from March 13- 20 and on Mar 24 -31
- 5 matinee games
- 3 back-to-back games, all involving travel after the first game
Tough stretch of games and very important ones. The Pens season will probably hang in the balance for making the playoffs or breaking their 9-year streak of going to the post-season.
3. Trade deadline decisions
Before the Pens can get to March, they have to make it past the trade deadline, on February 29. It seems likely that general manager Jim Rutherford will do something. He's been very active, this season there haven't been many trades but the Pens have already made 2; one with Chicago to swap Rob Scuderi for Trevor Daley and one with Anaheim to get Carl Hagelin for David Perron and Adam Clendening.
Rutherford's been said to have interest in both a forward and top-four defenseman. However, surely every general manager in the league would love to add a T4 defenseman if afforded the opportunity. The Pens defensive addition may have already happened with prospect Derrick Pouliot called up to the NHL. Pouliot isn't prepared to carry a huge role, but he can skate and move the puck well and hopefully grow into a solid 3rd pair role on a playoff team; much like Kris Letang did in the Pens 2009 Stanley Cup run. Interestingly, like Letang in Spring 2009, Pouliot just turned 22 years old so some parallels could be there.
Forward could be a different story. Much of the Pens early depth (Pascal Dupuis, Daniel Sprong, Beau Bennett with reoccurring injuries) is gone. The team is regularly dressing uninspiring options like Tom Kuhnhackl and Kevin Porter so it could be very reasonable to try and add a lower-line winger (preferably one with decent skating ability, a trait Sullivan seems to favor in lineup decisions). Time will tell what the market bears with so many teams still in the playoff hunt
4. It's up to you New York, New York
Looking at the playoff chart above, the New York Rangers are currently 4 points ahead of the Pens (with Pittsburgh having a game in-hand). The Islanders are just 1 point ahead of the Pens (with NYI having a game in-hand). The Devils are tied with Pittsburgh but the Pens have 2 games in hand.
With the Capitals waay out in front, everyone else is just shooting for second place in the division. Such a goal is very attainable for Pittsburgh, the Rangers have been slip-sliding after a fast start and NYI has looked decent to inconsistent all season.
Any and all games involving New York area teams will be very important down the stretch, if you're going to watch the scoreboard those are shaping up to be the best ones, for the time being. Any and all head-to-head matchups will obviously be of the utmost importance.
5. It's always about the goalie
A hockey team is as good as how their goalie is playing and Marc-Andre Fleury currently has what would be a career high .925 save percentage on the season. How Fleury goes down the stretch, so too will the Pens.
Luckily, the second half of the season has usually smiled upon Fleury, who has a 69-26-13 career record in the month of March with 10 shutouts and a .917%. As we listed above with the importance of March, Pittsburgh will need that type of career-highest performance in the month of March.