PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — The Penguins ended their 2013-14 preseason with a winning record after a 5-1 victory in Detroit Wednesday night, and despite another disappointing playoff exit this past spring, expectations are once again high with the regular season just days away.
Traditionally, Penguin hype gets going well before the first meaningful puck is dropped, and this year is no different. Captain Sidney Crosby, for example, has made the regional cover of Sports Illustrated’s forthcoming NHL preview issue, and Crosby will be one of a number of players representing his team and country when the League shuts down for two weeks in February to participate in the Sochi, Russia Winter Olympics.
In his lighthearted, Olympic-themed team-by-team forecasts, Yahoo! Sports “Puck Daddy” blog contributor Sean Leahy says the Pens should be able to echo their success from the truncated 2012-13 season in the new Metropolitan Division (the Devils, Flyers, Islanders, and Rangers of the old Atlantic Division, plus Carolina, Columbus, and Washington).
“Barring a major injury bug hitting the team, the Penguins will battle for the Metropolitan Division title and finish near the top of the Eastern Conference. The questions start in the playoffs as the pressure to win another championship grows,” Leahy writes.
“[Goaltender Marc-Andre] Fleury is in a make-or-break season and has a lot to prove after failing to get it done now for several postseasons. If the questions in goal can be cleared up–whether it’s Fleury or [Tomas] Vokoun or someone else–they’ll make for scary Cup contenders.”
Click here to read the full team preview by Leahy, including his take on how Vokoun’s unfortunate situation might affect the team’s efforts to get under the new salary cap.
Goaltending has become an especially large concern, as Vokoun, on Wednesday, was released from a hospital after doctors took care of a blood clot in his pelvis that was discovered this past Saturday. Head coach Dan Bylsma recently said the 37-year-old backup is resting comfortably, with no timetable for his return.
When Fleury failed to exorcise postseason demons back in April, Vokoun guided the Pens through playoff rounds against the Islanders and Ottawa Senators before their season ended at the expense of the Boston Bruins in a four-game Eastern Conference Final sweep.
Pens GM Ray Shero told the Tribune-Review he isn’t sure yet if Vokoun’s pelvic injury is related to a similar blood clot he suffered in 2006 that kept him from the end of the 2005-06 regular season and the entire playoffs when he was with the Nashville Predators.
It was an up-and-down preseason for the Pens, but Fleury did look pretty sharp against the Wings Wednesday, albeit against their JV squad, so to speak. With the team having hired a new goalie coach, Mike Bales, and the help of a sports psychologist being enlisted, a lot of pressure will be on Fleury, to say nothing of the pressure on default second-stringer Jeff Zatkoff.
Zatkoff, 26, who was in goal for a 3-2 shootout win over the Chicago Blackhawks in Pittsburgh Monday, is coming off a fabulous season splitting time in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton with Brad Thiessen. The Baby Pens were the AHL’s least scored-upon team during the 2012-13 campaign.
Still, he remains unproven as an NHL netminder.
“For the moment, Zatkoff will be the backup and given the opportunity to prove he can handle the job, otherwise Shero will be likely be on the market for a veteran No. 2,” Leahy writes.
The Pens open the 2013-14 season next Thursday against the Devils at 7:00 at CONSOL Energy Center, which can be seen on ROOT Sports.