It has been a remarkable regular season for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who steamrolled to the top of the Eastern Conference and will be a No. 1 seed for the first time in 20 years.
At the end of February, the Penguins were 13-8-0, which was good enough for the top spot in the Atlantic Division. When the calendar flipped to March, Pittsburgh went on an incredible run -- 15 consecutive victories and wins in 22 of 24 games -- to wrap up the top spot in the East.
They are the favorites in the conference, and given the recent wobbles by the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens, maybe decidedly so. The Penguins have won one playoff series since taking the Stanley Cup in 2009, and being considered the favorite by many pundits last season didn't turn out so well.
With that in mind, here are five questions facing the Penguins as the Stanley Cup Playoffs beckon:
1. Will all of these pieces actually fit?
General manager Ray Shero added Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Jussi Jokinen and Douglas Murray before the NHL trade deadline and made one of the best rosters in the League into maybe its most talented since the 2002 Detroit Red Wings. When Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal were lost to injury, the Penguins kept winning because the new players slid into prominent roles and scored key goals.
How will everyone handle their roles once the lineup is healthy? There are a lot of players who are used to logging big minutes, and key positions on the special-teams units, and some will have to accept lesser roles. Coach Dan Bylsma also will need to juggle the lineup based on matchups and how a series evolves.
This is a Cup-worthy roster on paper, but there hasn't been a lot of time for it to mesh because of the injuries.
2. Speaking of injuries … what can Sidney Crosby contribute?
Crosby has not played since taking a shot off his jaw March 30, and when he will return has not been determined. Neal returned for the final game of the regular season after missing three weeks because of a concussion. Defenseman Paul Martin also returned Saturday from a broken hand.
The latest injury is to defenseman Brooks Orpik, who is out with a lower-body issue. Teams are rarely healthy in the postseason, with players missing from the lineup or fighting through ailments. The Penguins need a healthy Crosby at some point, but they also need some of the others who have missed time to be healed and to find their previous form.
3. Are the Penguins going to play any defense?
In case anyone forgot, the Penguins gave up a lot of goals in a first-round series loss to the Philadelphia Flyers a year ago: 30 in six games. There has been a significantly better commitment to playing sound defense and not putting the majority of the burden on the goaltender, but the Penguins still have to prove they can do that in the postseason.
The forwards have to remain responsible, and the defensemen have to limit mistakes. This team likely will score enough to win, but the Penguins are going to have to defend well if a deep playoff run is in their future.
The Penguins also have to do a better job of holding onto a lead than they did a year ago. They consistently jumped out in front of the Flyers only to yield the advantage -- often quickly.
4. Will discipline be an issue?
The Flyers were able to get to the Penguins in 2012, and Pittsburgh lacked the mental fortitude to avoid senseless penalties. Philadelphia's power play carved up the Penguins to make sure the mistakes were punished.
Pittsburgh's work on the penalty kill has been suspect this season. The Penguins can dominate teams at even strength, but a parade to the penalty box would leave them vulnerable to goals allowed and keep some of their star scorers watching from the bench.
5. Can James Neal rediscover his early-season form?
Neal had just one goal since March 10 before netting a hat trick in the final game of the regular season. He missed nine games because of a concussion, and had a stretch of one goal in 13 games before the injury. He scored 17 in the first 26 games of the season.
The high-scoring forward also didn't have a power-play goal in the 22 contests he played in before Satruday after netting eight in his first 17. Pittsburgh has plenty of offensive depth to compensate if Neal doesn't consistently have his scoring touch, but he has 40-goal talent, and if he gets rolling again the Penguins' offense gets even more frightening.
Follow Corey Masisak on Twitter: @cmasisak22
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