As the NHL heads into the Olympic Break, teams have sent their best players to Sochi to compete for their respected countries. Pittsburgh has seven players in attendance (Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz, Canada; Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin, USA; Evgeni Malkin, Russia; and Jussi Jokinen and Olli Maatta, Finland) as well as several staff and coaches for Team USA (Ray Shero, Dan Bylsma, Tony Granato, Andy Saucier). For those who are not going to Sochi, they have the chance to relax and regroup for two weeks before starting the last quarter of the season. For now, Pittsburgh is standing tall in first place in the Eastern Conference standings with 83 points. Pittsburgh is four points behind Anahiem for best overall record in the NHL. During this two-week break Pittsburgh must not let off the gas pedal. Pittsburgh is one of the favorites to win the Eastern Conference this season and hopes to compete in the Stanley Cup Finals this season, a goal which was not accomplished last year. I’m going to grade Pittsburgh so far this season and what they could do to maybe improve their record.
Pittsburgh has one of the best offenses in the NHL this season. Pittsburgh has scored 182 goals this season. This is an impressive feat considering that winger James Neal, Beau Bennett and center Evgeni Malkin has been injured this season. In addition, Pittsburgh lost first line winger Pascal Dupuis to a knee injury. Brian Gibbon has been a solid call up from Wilkes-Barrie/Scranton, but is he the guy they need right now? I have a feeling that once Beau Bennett comes back, the second line will be back to Neal-Malkin-Bennett. Which will send Jussi Jokinen back to the third line with Brandon Sutter. If Gibbons steps up his game and generates points on the first line, I don’t see how they don’t try to keep him there. Now, I’ve heard rumors that Pittsburgh could trade for. Some names that are swirling around are Matt Moulson, Mike Cammalleri, and Ray Whitney. I personally would love to see Matt Moulson on the same line as Crosby and Kunitz. We know that GM Ray Shero is not afraid to make a splash at the trade deadline. However, I don’t see Pittsburgh giving up anyone huge for a guy like Moulson. If they were willing to give up another draft pick for a guy like Cammalleri then I could see that happening. I believe that Pittsburgh will look for veteran leadership for their first line in order to produce more goals. From what I’ve seen out of Brian Gibbons, if he can produce along that first line than why not give him a shot.
Defensively Pittsburgh has had it’s issues it seems like. For one, injuries have haunted Pittsburgh. However, the defense is healthy. Sort of. Last Friday, it was announced that Kris Letang had suffered a stroke in late January. Letang has been in and out of the line up this season with injuries. Letang will be re-evaluated after a six-week treatment period. He was given clearance to go on vacation with his family during the NHL’s Olympic break. So this could mean that he could miss more than six-weeks. If that is the case for Pittsburgh, there will have to be some reshuffling. Pittsburgh’s defense has been good and bad. They’ve overcome a lot this season, at one point they lost all of their top-four defenders due to injury. Pittsburgh has seen the rise of Olli Maatta as a young defenseman. In addition, Matt Niskanen took leadership while the top-four defensemen were injured and really stepped up his game. Niskanen was a name that was being tossed around at the beginning of the season for trading purposes. Both Niskanen and Maatta have stepped up and are having fantastic seasons. I’m hoping that Paul Martin will use the time at the Olympics to progress coming off of injury and continue to get back into game shape. But with Letang’s health in question, what will Pittsburgh do to to fill his void?
I believe they will continue to do what they’ve done. They will bump someone up to fill his void and be fine. Pittsburgh has stockpiled defenders and will utilize them. I don’t see any issues with Letang. I hope he’s okay for the future, but at the moment, the defense will need to stay healthy and just work together. They cannot let up either. They need to stay sharp to protect Fleury and not give away any easy goals.
After much speculation of how Marc-Andre Fleury would play this season, Fleury has really silenced those who doubted him. I was one of those doubters. After two consecutive frustrating playoff performances, Fleury did what he needed to do and get better. Prior to this season, there were reports that he went to a sports psychiatrist. With back-up goal tender Tomas Vokoun out for the entire season, Fleury had to prove that he was still the guy in Pittsburgh. He has done just that. I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he will keep this up for the rest of the season. Fleury has 31 victories this season, which is the most in the NHL. In addition, Fleury has four shut outs this season which is second in the NHL behind Boston’s Tuukka Rask. Fleury has looked this entire season. He has made some spectacular saves this season against some of the leagues best. But will all of this transition into the last quarter of the season?
I think it will. Fleury could be considered a snub for Team Canada this season due to his inability to come up in the clutch in certain big games. This is most demonstrated in the last two seasons during the playoffs. However, this season Fleury has outplayed Roberto Luongo who was selected for Team Canada. The only issue for Pittsburgh this season is at the back up position. With Vokoun out with a blood clot in his leg, Pittsburgh turned it’s eyes to their former AHL prospect Jeff Zatkoff. Zatkoff is 9-2-1 as a starter this season letting up 31 goals. However, if Fleury gets tired or lets up too many goals in any games in the playoffs, Zatkoff has to be the man to step up and I’m not quiet sure he is the man for that yet. I’m not saying that Pittsburgh needs to go out and find a veteran goalie to replace Zatkoff this season because Zatkoff’s record shows he can get it done. What I’m saying is that Fleury needs to make sure he keeps up his outstanding play in this regular season and not get caught up in the moment and lose the momentum after the Olympic Break. Fleury has the chance to cap off a spectacular season with a Stanley Cup victory and as a possibly Vezina Trophy winner.
Overall Grade: A-
If the team can stay focused and continue to play well. They will lift the Stanley Cup at the end of the season. If Fleury stays hot and continues to play well, this team will have no issue winning the Stanley Cup.