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Hockey is back. Fans are finally getting their fix after a terrible period of withdrawal that was filled with too many Gary Bettman hallucinations. Pittsburgh can stop hovering around the local rink, badgering young hockey players about how they need to change shifts quicker. Now the focus shifts to the Ice Gods of Western Pennsylvania, the Penguins.

Many expect big things from this Pens team, as experts are predicting them to make a Stanley Cup run. And why shouldn’t they? They have the best player in the game in Sidney Crosby, who has fully recovered from the multiple concussions that haltered his two past seasons. Combine that with another top 5 player in Malkin, and one of the best young defenseman in Kris Letang, how can you not win with that trio?

But if the Pens truly want to make a postseason run, then it will be the role players that will need to be on top of their game. Here’s a brief rundown of what needs to go right for the Penguins to lift their 4th Stanley Cup.

Marc-Andre Fleury

Fleury is good and I don’t think the Penguins would want any other goaltender. However, he was simply awful in the playoffs. Fleury’s 2011-2012 regular season statistics: 153 goals against (9th in NHL), 1,768 saves (12th), and a 2.36 goals against average (12th). Even though those numbers are about league average and his .913 save percentage was only good for 27th, he was effective for what the team needed him to do. He stopped enough pucks to let their high-scoring attack take over the game.

The 6-game first round loss to the Philadelphia Flyers was a completely different story, as he became a liability. Playoff stats: 12th in saves (out of 16 teams), and a .834 save percentage and a ludicrous 4.63 GAA (penguins.nhl.com listed his rank as N/A, yes he was that bad). Even though he wasn’t the sole factor in the team’s disappointing performance, he let too many pucks through the 5 hole to give them a fighting chance. When you get pulled in a playoff game for Brent Johnson, who had a terrible season which led to his departure, you know you are not doing so hot.

Thomas Vokoun, who was great with the Florida Panthers but tenure with the Washington Capitals didn’t pan out, will back up Flurry. He still will provide that extra comfort that Fleury needs. I expect Fleury to remain his consistent self in the regular season, while showing the improvements he made over the extended offseason in the postseason.

The Third Line

The biggest offseason move the Penguins made was the trade of Jordan Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes for the No. 8 pick in the recent draft (defenseman Derrick Pouliot), center Brandon Sutter, and defenseman Brian Dumoulin. Staal was great, efficient on the penalty kill, and the combination of Crosby, Malkin, and him made for a deadly three lines. But Staal is soon to be a free agent, so the Penguins decided to save cap space while still getting something in return.

So where does this leave Pittsburgh’s third line? sports.yahoo.com currently has the Penguin’s third line listed as Matt Cooke and Eric Tangradi on the wings with Sutter up the middle. Honestly, I don’t know much about Sutter accept his stats (17 G, 15 A, -3 +/-) and that he had an impressive first outing (goal and a assist) in Wednesday’s scrimmage. He’s only 23 and has 3 shorthanded goals last year (4th), so he most likely will be a factor on the penalty kill. If he and the scrappy Cooke can mesh, then this can be a line that can create havoc on other forwards with their aggressive checking.

Other possibilities would be Tanner Glass, recently added from the Winnipeg Jets, moving up a line as a wing, or even Dustin Jeffrey being implemented on the third line with Sutter moving down to the 4th line. Regardless, this line needs to be effective as a complement to the Crosby and Malkin lines.

Paul Martin

Paul Martin is a decent defenseman. I’m skeptical that he’s good enough to be a first line defenseman though. Clearly the Penguins thought the same thing. The Pens front office tried to lure the talent of Ryan Suter to Pittsburgh, until the Minnesota Wild stepped in and gave him an egregious contract that was one of the main catalysts of the lockout (along with fellow teammate Zach Parise’s 13-year contract). Now Martin has the opportunity to show that Suter would of just been wasted money and he can play just as well.

Playing alongside Letang will help greatly. With Letang being such a great skater and threat on offense, Martin can focus on playing stellar defense, while putting pucks in the right place on offense. Doing his part on the penalty kill will also be crucial.

There’s a reason this Penguins team is favored to win it all. Either Crosby or Malkin will surely put in a MVP season. They have a great coach in Dan Bylsma who knows exactly what he can get out of players. Most importantly, they’re hungry. Their rivals humiliated them to the point where their only defense was to fight and tap away gloves. Now they’re healthy and have added a year of experience. But none of it will matter if they can’t get the production they need from their role players. And what better way to prove that everything’s clicking by providing an ass-whooping to the team that crushed their cup run last season.

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