by Tony on 04/21/13 at 09:36 AM ET
Call me a glutton for punishment.
Recently, I spent a couple of hours watching the highlights (if you could call them that) of the Penguins' last three seasons of playoff games since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009.
As you can imagine, it wasn't pretty. But it wasn't pretty exclusively due to Marc-Andre Fleury, as has been a common scapegoat, let's make that clear right away. Yes, there were absolutely several very soft goals. But there were also numerous situations where the defense in front of him broke down. Deflected pucks. And flat-out lucky bounces.
But hey, that's why goaltender is the most high-profile position when it comes to the NHL Playoffs, is it not?
For when the decent goalie all of a sudden stands on his head and leads his team to the Cup, it's the goalie on the team of superstars that fails to uphold his end of the bargain, for whatever reasons.
So now as the Penguins steamroll towards the playoffs with a top seed and an incredibly stacked lineup, the focus will inevitably be on Fleury.
That's been a common denominator when playoff discussions are held nowadays about the Penguins:
Will Fleury return to the form he exhibited in bringing the Pens back from a 3-2 deficit in the '09 Cup Finals, to include Game 7 in Detroit and stonewalling Nik Lidstrom at the buzzer?
Or will we simply see yet another playoff run full of the aforemention blunders, whether they're due to Fleury or not?
Well, only time will tell, but I think it's safe to say Ray Shero did everything in his power to shore up as many deficiencies. Let's forget about the forwards, just for a minute.
Back in February, Shero brought back an old face from the '09 Cup team when he signed steady defensemen Mark Eaton to a PTO. All Eaton has done has been a +10 since being inserted on the Pens' blueline for 20 games now, in which Pittsburgh has been 18-2.
Nine days before the trade deadline Shero addressed a glaring need on his blueline for more physicality and less offensive skill when he acquired hulking D-man Douglas Murray from San Jose. Murray will never be confused for a fleet-of-foot skater, far from it. But he does exactly what the Penguins have needed for a few years now: Another D-man who can clear forwards away from Fleury's crease, can absolutely punish opponents along the boards, and if need be, drop the gloves, although that's not needed in the playoffs that much.
But arguably the key to an improved Penguins' defense in front of Fleury this season hasn't been a recent Shero acquisition at all. The reformation of Paul Martin back to his form during his years in New Jersey quickly changed Martin from a trade target to a valued asset, with a +12 rating in 33 games this season. Although Martin is currently injured, he's been skating for about a week now and hopefully will be back for the first round of the playoffs.
Having said all that, there will be times during the playoffs when the puck is not bouncing the Penguins' way for Fleury, and they'll have to rely on their forwards to outscore their opponent.
Once again, Shero was magnificent in acquiring complimentary pieces that he hopes will propel the Penguins to the Cup once again. It started the season before, when Shero was silent at the trade deadline at a season in which the NHL's CBA would expire at its conclusion. It also helped that Zach Parise decided to sign in Minnesota, but I digress. It left Shero with approximately $10 million in cap space entering the 2012-2013 season.
It was with that cap space that he started his wheeling and dealing as the trade deadline approached by acquiring Brenden Morrow from the Stars. But the thing is that Morrow won't be needed to be a high-scoring forward for the Pens, it's in the trenches and in front of the net during the playoffs that Shero got Morrow. It was yet another glaring need that the Penguins have had, and it's most definitely been filled with Morrow.
But relatively speaking, that was nothing compared to the overnight trade that brought future Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla to the Pens, after shunning the Boston Bruins. Iginla brings several assets to the table, but one of the biggest in terms of what the Penguins need is his presence on the left wall of the Pens' first power play unit. It doesn't appear that it's gonna matter whether Iggy is paired with Sidney Crosby's line or Evgeni Malkin's, he's just that special of a hockey player.
And last but not least, let's not forget the draft day trade that brought underrated forward Jussi Jokinen to the Penguins from the Hurricanes. In only six games with the Penguins, Jokinen has 4 goals and 8 points. Most likely, assuming a healthy Penguins lineup, during the playoffs Jokinen will be their 4th line center. They could do much worse, no doubt.
So the pieces of the Cup puzzle have been filled for the Penguins by Shero. But as we all know, Stanley Cups are not won on paper.
They've got the forwards, they've got a shored-up defense, now the only question remains is whether they, collectively as a team, will help Fleury silence his critics.
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Originally at Blogspot, then at MVN, TheConfluence has over 1500 articles reporting Penguins news as well as jumping on my soapbox to opine constructive Penguins criticism.
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