Yesterday I unveiled my predictions for both conferences (East and West). In there I stated that the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks would both make it to the Stanley Cup final. Here are five reasons why the Pens will come out on top and take home Lord Stanley this season.1. Evgeni Malkin’s dominance
The Evgeni Malkin we all know is back. After a summer full of rigorous rehab and an impressive preseason, the Pens will reap the benefits of Malkin’s return. With Sidney Crosby out of the lineup to start the year, ‘Geno will be an important player for Dan Bylsma’s gang this season. Malkin, who missed the final three months of last season with a blown-out knee, is one of the few current players that can singlehandedly take over a game. He is primed for a huge year, so much so that it prompted beat writer Rob Rossi to project a 53-goal season from No. 71
. Malkin dominated throughout 2009 playoffs and won the Art Ross that year (113 points). Look for a performance of that caliber in 2011-12.2. Sidney Crosby’s return
If all goes well for No. 87, it seems like he could be back in the lineup sometime in late October or November. Again, that’s if all goes well in his workouts. Crosby was in the midst of playing the best hockey of his career (including a 25-game point streak) when he went down with the concussion last year. The optimism from all parties, and the fact that Crosby won’t be in a game until he’s 100%, makes me believe he’ll be able to reach that elite playing level once again. If he reaches that point prior to the postseason, look out. This was the NHL’s best team last year when Sid went down. And the Penguins are better now than they were at that point.3. Kris Letang’s emergence
One semi-forgotten piece to the Pens’ 2009 championship team is Sergei Gonchar; his calm, offensively-gifted presence on the back end was a difference-maker for a handful of years in Pittsburgh. Kris Letang did his best Gonchar impression in the first half of last season (41 points in 50 games before All-Star break), but faded down the stretch (9 points in final 32 games). With Malkin healthy and Crosby on the mend, it should help Letang put up big numbers for a full season. Letang, who is 24 years old and entering his fifth full NHL season, will anchor a strong blue-line.4. Depth, depth and more depth
So we know how good Malkin and Crosby are, and how important Letang will be this season. That’s just scratching the surface for this Penguins team. Jordan Staal could be a top-line center on a handful of teams. James Neal and Steve Sullivan are additions since last February that give the Pens solid secondary scoring. Tyler Kennedy could take the next step this year, too. Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek, along with Letang, showed the NHL that they can win games by playing stellar defense. Brent Johnson is an underrated backup to Marc-Andre Fleury. And if injuries occur again, the organization now has confidence in some AHLers that they can fill in from time-to-time.5. They have all of the ingredients
Depth down the middle? Check. Solid goaltending that can rise to the occasion? Check. A great coach? Check. A quality team away from home ice? Check. The Penguins don’t get fazed by anything. The fact that they finished one point out of first in the conference amid their injury woes last year tells you what kind of character they have. Crosby, Malkin and Staal only played in two games together in all of 2010-11. If they turn around a power play unit that, for some reason, has struggled in recent years, this will be the most dangerous club in the entire NHL.
In closing, this is the league’s most complete team on paper, when healthy. Sustained health from Crosby is the x-factor in Pittsburgh’s pursuit of their fourth Stanley Cup. If he is on top of his game, the Penguins will be the last team standing next June.Photo credit: Getty Images