PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins are in a familiar position after another successful regular season.
The Penguins enter the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the Eastern Conference's second seed. They only spent one day out of first place in the Metropolitan Division after October, trailing the Washington Capitals by one point on Nov. 18.
Top center Sidney Crosby finished as the NHL's scoring champion, while linemate Chris Kunitz broke his previous career highs of 26 goals and 61 points. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, facing pressure stemming from a lackluster postseason and without a veteran backup after a training-camp injury to Tomas Vokoun (blood clot), enjoyed one of his best regular seasons.
Pittsburgh's regular-season stats were impressive, but are not an indication of its play during the final two months. The Penguins went 9-9-1 during a 19-game stretch that culminated with a 4-0 loss to the Minnesota Wild on April 5. They were outscored by 14 goals in regulation during that period.
Yet, Pittsburgh had built such a cushion it clinched its division on April. 3, and coach Dan Bylsma said a lack of focus was not a reason for its inconsistency, but rather the function of such a sizeable lead in the division.
"We knew basically where we were going to finish. We knew that we were going to win the division, so we kind of knew where we were at for the most part," Bylsma said. "But we have had several things we have looked at in our game and how we play that we need to be ready for playoff hockey in those areas, and that is where our focus has been at from game to game."
One of those areas has been Pittsburgh's lack of depth past its top-two lines. It had been a weakness throughout the season, but became glaringly evident after center Evgeni Malkin sustained a foot injury during his first shift March 23 against the St. Louis Blues, one day after he scored two goals and four points against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Malkin added to the Penguins' lengthy injury list which will have resulted in more than 500 man-games lost by the end of the season. Those absences forced Pittsburgh to rearrange its lines, which has resulted in a lack of consistency throughout the bottom-six.
But Crosby thinks blame shouldn't fall upon the third and fourth lines. He said the top-six forwards can aid the rest of the lineup by controlling the puck and tiring the opposing team before line changes during the postseason.
"When everyone's going, it makes it easier on the next line to go out there," Crosby said. "You're wearing teams down and [the bottom-six] are going to get more opportunities. So, I think we're aware of that and going into the playoffs, you need that depth and I think everyone right on through [the lineup] will understand that and know that they have to contribute."
Forward Beau Bennett and defenseman Paul Martin returned to the lineup in the final weeks of the season after each missed the majority of the regular season with multiple injuries. Defenseman Kris Letang, who suffered a stroke in late January, returned during the season's final week. But forwards Marcel Goc and Joe Vitale each were sidelined in March.
Vitale, a versatile player who has played center and wing on the Penguins' bottom-two lines, began practicing on March 31 and said he thinks returning players will bolster the lineup.
"With our bottom-six, the one thing I've noticed is that with all of the injuries, there are so many mixes and matches," Vitale said. "With the top two lines, every night, you know what you get. They've found each other, they know each other. With the bottom-six, it's kind of like you show up every day and you have a different winger every day. That definitely plays a role, and I'm not using it as an excuse.
"I think with guys coming back from injuries, hopefully we'll stay healthy and you start to find some consistency with each other and camaraderie with each other, and obviously communication is a big part of that and when you have those things for three, four, five, six games, then maybe you can find that production."
The rotating door has caused third-line center Brandon Sutter to struggle in his second season with the Penguins after an effective first season alongside forwards Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke, who joined the San Jose Sharks and Wild, respectively, during the offseason.
Carolina Hurricanes forward Jordan Staal centered the Penguins' third line during his first six NHL seasons before being traded to Carolina for a package that included Sutter. He returned again April 1 when the Hurricanes recorded a 4-1 win. Staal said he did not notice a lack of size on the third line compared to the Penguins' bottom-six during his tenure.
"I don't know about [if Pittsburgh lacks size]. They're a good team, there's no question, whether they didn't have their best or not," Staal said. "They're a good team and they're sitting in a good spot."
Pittsburgh's third and fourth lines have consisted of Sutter, Lee Stempniak, Craig Adams, Brian Gibbons, Tanner Glass and Jayson Megna in most cases through March and April. Sutter and Stempniak, who also played on the top line since being acquired at the 2014 NHL Trade Deadline, are the only players of those six who have scored at least 20 points.
Sutter thinks Pittsburgh's top two lines, anchored by Crosby and Kunitz on the first line and Malkin and James Neal on the second when all are healthy, have benefited from familiarity. The bottom-six hasn't had the same luxury, but he thinks it is beginning to gel at the appropriate time.
"Our bottom-six forwards have kind of been the same all year, we've just been rotating all the way through," Sutter said. "We really haven't had a set of lines, so it is a bit challenging to get that offensive chemistry. Lately, I've been working with [Gibbons] a lot and I thought we've worked really well together. These last few weeks, I've thought we've had ample chances; we just haven't been able to put them in the net.
"Seems to be a little bit of chemistry now and we're finally getting something going, but we need to keep something together."
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