I wrote yesterday about the relative meaninglessness of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ final regular-season games, especially since they have a 99 percent chance of finishing with the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed.
However, while it’s easy to say there’s nothing tangible to play for, clearly coach Dan Bylsma and his staff will be seeking effective line combinations and player deployment strategies that will serve the Penguins well in the playoffs.
With 10 games to go before the postseason bullets start flying, here are 10 questions the Pens will be attempting to answer during that time frame, in no particular order:
1. What’s wrong with the penalty kill, if anything? Pittsburgh’s shorthanded unit remains the second-best in the NHL with a 85.8 percent kill rate, but it’s started to tail off lately. The Pens have allowed six power-play goals in their past seven games, not counting Phoenix’s game-winning tally Tuesday that occurred just as a Pittsburgh penalty expired.
2. Will Tomas Vokoun get back on the ice? The 37-year-old goalie has been working out with the team regularly, but his postseason status remains unclear. Rookie Jeff Zatkoff has done fine work backing up Marc-Andre Fleury, although one imagines Vokoun would get a shot if he’s ready to play.
3. What to do with Rob Scuderi and Brooks Orpik? This pair of thirtysomething defensive defensemen have noticeably declined from previous levels of effectiveness. Both have negative Corsi ratings this season, confirming what season-long observation has hinted at. They’re going to play if healthy, but can creative usage give them a boost?
4. Can Matt Niskanen and Olli Maatta continue to shoulder the load? The 27-year-old Niskanen is skating 21 minutes a night and the 19-year-old Maatta has had some recent bouts with shakiness as he plays the longest season of his young life. At least until Paul Martin and/or Kris Letang return, they’ll continue to be leaned upon.
5. When will the ‘Big Two’ get healthy? Martin and Letang were each playing more than 24 minutes per game before getting knocked out the lineup. Letang skated with Deryk Engelland on a fourth pairing during Thursday’s workout, while Martin is scheduled for another X-ray on his mending hand this weekend.
6. What about Beau Bennett? Speaking of Penguins with healing wings, Bennett (broken hand/wrist) has completed his three-game conditioning stint in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and will return to Pittsburgh imminently. His return would inject some much-needed skill no matter where he lines up.
7. Can Marcel Goc bring more to the table? While fellow trade-deadline acquisition Lee Stempniak has fit in quite well on Sidney Crosby‘s right wing, Goc has seen his puck-possession numbers drop drastically (from a 53 percent Corsi rating down to 36) since arriving from Florida. Goc got some time between Jussi Jokinen and James Neal on Tuesday, so maybe the Pens are trying to find him better support.
8. More rest for weary legs? The seven Penguins who competed in the Olympics have gotten regular off-days in the past month, and Bylsma rested the entire team Wednesday despite what some players deemed a lackluster effort the night before. What’s the proper balance of work and recovery in the midst of a three-week span that includes 14 games?
9. What’s Evgeni Malkin‘s timetable? The former regular-season and playoff MVP suffered a hairline fracture in his foot Sunday against St. Louis, putting him out for the next two or three weeks. How much do he and the Penguins want to push to get him back on the ice before the schedule runs out?
10. Time to start scouting? According to the valuable SportsClubStats.com, the Pens have a 32 percent chance of playing Detroit in the first round. Other realistic possibilities include Columbus (25 percent), Philadelphia (12 percent), Toronto (10 percent) and Washington (9 percent). Considering how Pittsburgh is locked into the No. 2 spot, it’s not too early to look into the wild-card contenders’ tendencies.
Tonight’s Game: Penguins (46-21-5, 97 points – 1st Metropolitan) vs. Kings (42-25-6, 90 points – 3rd Pacific) at Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center
Faceoff: 7 p.m. ET
TV: Root Sports Pittsburgh
Radio: 105.9 The X
For the second time this season, former Kings draft pick Zatkoff will start in goal against Los Angeles. The Pens downed the Kings 4-1 on Jan. 30 at Staples Center, with Zatkoff manning the crease in that matchup, too.
The Penguins can clinch their eighth straight playoff berth via a win or an overtime/shootout loss.