Though the Pittsburgh Penguins didn't make it to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the fashion most expected, the pieces are in place to make a deep run for their second championship since 2009.
Centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin give the Penguins arguably the two best players on the planet. Game-changing talents, Crosby and Malkin force coaches to decide which one to use their top defensemen against. When they're healthy (Malkin recently returned from a lower-body injury), Crosby and Malkin pace the offense. Malkin is a former Conn Smythe Trophy winner and has 111 points in 96 Stanley Cup Playoff games. If he's at or near 100 percent, things are completely different for Pittsburgh.
Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford added necessary pieces to take some pressure of his top two players. In addition to acquiring forwards Nick Spaling and Patric Hornqvist (who had success playing with Crosby this season) prior to the regular season, Rutherford added forwards David Perron and Daniel Winnik in-season.
Perron bounced around the lineup and recently played with Malkin and Chris Kunitz. The top two lines are as formidable as any team in the playoffs, and the additions allow forwards Beau Bennett, Steve Downie, Bandon Sutter and Spaling to play in the bottom six against bottom-pair defensemen.
Depth is so important in playoff hockey. When the forwards are fully healthy, it's an area of strength here.
Defensively, Pittsburgh has had to weather a storm. Kris Letang sustained a concussion on March 28 and is questionable to play this postseason. Christian Ehrhoff hasn't played since March 24 because of an upper-body injury but remains a possibility to return. Paul Martin has been a workhorse without Ehrhoff, Kris Letang and Olli Mattaa (shoulder) in the lineup. Rookie Derrick Pouliot, who recently missed time with an upper-body injury, has stepped in and played key minutes at a high level. Defenseman Ben Lovejoy, acquired prior to the NHL Trade Deadline, has played a bigger role than expected, but has handled his minutes well. The same can be said for deadline acquisition Ian Cole.
Pittsburgh has worked around missing some of its key defensemen, but goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is coming off a very strong regular season. Fleury set a career-high in save percentage and had a personal-best 10 shutouts. Fleury's postseason resume is a bit of a mixed bag, but his current play suggests another rise in fortunes.
If the power play can return to its early season form, another weapon will be added to the arsenal. The Penguins started the regular season scoring on 18 of their first 43 power-play opportunities. Pittsburgh has gone 31-for-211 since (14.7 percent) but has the talent to again become a major threat.
It's strange to think of Pittsburgh as a long shot in the playoffs, but by qualifying as the second wild card from the Eastern Conference, this won't be a typical postseason with the immense pressure of being a top seed. Without the expectations, Pittsburgh can play its game and beat any of the other 15 teams in the field.