The Pittsburgh Penguins are at the top of the Eastern Conference, and have a fairly comfortable margin at the top of those standings. They have done a lot of things right to get to that point. However, there are still a lot of things that the team, and individual players, need to prove. There is no better time to prove themselves than on the road against two very formidable opponents, the Los Angeles Kings and Phoenix (soon to be Arizona) Coyotes. “So, who needs to prove themselves, Griggsy?” Well, dear reader, I’m glad you asked. Here are seven Penguins with something to prove:
The Entire 2nd Line (Jokinen/Malkin/Neal): They really proved themselves in last week’s game against Montreal and, to a lesser extent, the next night on Long Island. But they were completely absent in Dallas and against Buffalo. Malkin and Neal both appeared very frustrated by the Stars, and the entire line was completely disjointed every time they took the ice against the Sabres. This line should be the least disjointed one on the team, because they have the most time spent together intact, and the three players blend so well in terms of their talents. Yet, you see them on the ice, unable to make even the simplest of passing plays in the last two games, and you are left scratching your head.
I put them at the top of the list, because they are so crucial to the team’s success in these two road games. The Kings and Coyotes will get the matchups they want, and they are very likely to put their best defensemen and best checking lines out against Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz… oh, and some guy named Josh Griffins or something. Anyways, this means that the 2nd line will be in a position to make a lot of things happen, facing opponents of a lesser quality defensively. They need to make those chances count. And make them count often. They probably need to produce two goals each night to give the Penguins the best chance to win.
Jayson Megna: Everyone loves Megna. I may be exaggerating. But only slightly. So many verbal bouquets are being lobbed his way, from media and fans, because of his hustle and early success in the Pens’ lineup. But then an injury against the Maple Leafs took Megna out of the lineup. They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and it was absolutely the truth in this case. So many talked of Megna longingly, missing his presence as the injuries continued to mount. As time healed the Penguins’ many wounds, fans still clamored for the return of the young spark plug to the lineup. Megna finally returned, and….. eh.
Don’t get me wrong. I knew it would take time for Megna to regain his stride on the ice. Knee injuries for speedsters require patience, even after the players return to action. But the constant hype for his return built up high expectations. Frankly, Megna hasn’t done much to live up to those expectations yet. Yes, he’s been fast. But speed alone doesn’t get you anywhere. Otherwise, Konstantin Koltsov would still be a household name in the NHL. Megna needs to start creating more chances with his speed, and he also needs to start cashing in on those chances. This road trip would be the perfect time for Megna to start living up to the hype.
Rob Scuderi & Brooks Orpik: These are supposed to be the Pens’ two best stay-at-home defensemen. They have been anything but that in recent games. Scuderi, to be blunt, has been a bad hockey player since he returned from his injury. He has been a step off just about at all times. It’s hard to rely on a strong positional defenseman when his positioning hasn’t been right, and it likely has had a negative impact on his defense partner, Kris Letang. Scuderi badly needs to get back to his normal level of play. Familiarity may allow for him to get back in his groove. Los Angeles was Scuderi’s home for the previous four seasons. A return trip to the west coast will hopefully prove an effective way to get Scuderi’s play back to its needed level.
Orpik has just been poor for the last couple weeks. It is fairly obvious when Orpik is struggling, because the chances are flowing freely for opponents’ top forwards around the Penguins net. It is also obvious when Orpik is aware of his own poor play, because he typically tries to make up for it by taking runs at players in the neutral zone, looking for a big hit. This usually makes things way worse, because he takes himself out of the play, leaving his defense partner and his goalie hanging out to dry. Orpik really just needs to simplify his game in these situations, getting back to his basics. He needs to clear the crease, play with a strong stick in passing and shooting lanes, and let the game come to him. Doing that in these two games will go a long way to helping the team’s defense.
Marc Andre Fleury: I love the way that the Flower has been playing at home this season. In 23 games, he is 19-3-0, with a 1.97 GAA and a .932 SV%. Those are fantastic numbers, Vezina-worthy numbers. If MAF could play at CEC every game, the stigma surrounding him would be non-existent. Problem is, of course, that 41 games are played on the road. And that is really bad news for the Pens’ starting goalie. In his 20 road starts, he is 10-9-1, with a 2.58 GAA, and an alarming .899 SV%. Those are woeful numbers, by anyone’s standards. At times, Fleury is a victim of his teammates’ struggles on the road. No doubt about that. But he has also created his own issues, letting in some softies on the road. He may not play both games on the trip (this is the team’s first Moms Trip, so Bylsma may feel obligated to play Jeff Zatkoff in the Phoenix game), but regardless of his workload this weekend, he needs to step up his game between the pipes. A performance where he stands on his head for stretches would go a long way to proving himself away from Pittsburgh.
The task ahead of the Penguins is not an easy one. But if these seven men do the job they are capable of doing, the Pens just might be coming home with four more points in their back pockets.