Goaltending is key to Pens’ success

After months of waiting, hockey in all of its blades of glory — has finally returned to the Steel City.

The NHL kicked off its season Saturday after ending a nearly four-month-long lockout. This reduced season schedule has shrunk the normal 82-game season marathon to a short 48-game sprint to the playoffs.

Due to the shortened season, brief training camp, integration of new personnel, learning of new coaching schemes, and regaining of lost conditioning, this should be an exciting season.

Last season’s poor playoffs performance, at the hands of division rival Philadelphia Flyers, left a bitter taste in the mouths of fans and players.

Now, the Pittsburgh Penguins are ready to avenge last season’s disappointment and make a run deep into the playoffs. Hopefully, they will skate away at the end of the season with another Stanley Cup.

While the roster has undergone a bit of a shake-up, the Pens are still led by their top-tier centers, last year’s MVP Evgeni Malkin and perennial all-star Sidney Crosby. With Crosby being healthy for a full off-season, Pittsburgh should finally have both of its stars peaking at the right time.

A main cause for the Pens’ collapse to the Flyers at the end of last season and into the playoffs was goalie Marc-Andre Fleury’s poor performance.

At the top of his game, Fleury is one of the best goalies. But when he’s off his game, Fleury becomes a major liability for Pittsburgh.

Not even the Pens’ offense can consistently compensate for all the goals he lets in. To put some pressure on Fleury, the team traded a seventh-round draft pick for Tomas Vokoun, who started last season in goal for the Washington Capitals before losing his starting job halfway through the season due to injuries.

At 36, there are questions about Vokoun’s ability as an everyday starter if Fleury gets injured or does not perform. This long off-season and rushed preseason has done nothing to ease the concerns with Vokoun’s playing ability.

The primary off-season move for the Pens took place back during the summer. Third-line center James Staal was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes for a package including center Brandon Sutter.

While Staal is a much better player, his desire for a larger contract combined with Pittsburgh’s well of talent at the center position led to the Pens’ decision to trade him in return for younger players and future draft picks.

Sutter is a very good third-line center, but he could face problems if Malkin or Crosby gets injured and he is called on to fill in. He hasn’t proven to be the most reliable player thus far.

Overall, the Pens’ plays are very similar to those of last year, distinguished by yet another high-scoring offense led by a front line of Malkin and forward James Neal, a solid above-average defense, and question marks in goal.

Scoring has never been the Pens’ problem, and it seems unlikely to start now, especially with Malkin coming off winning the Art Ross trophy as the league’s scoring champion.

The team’s offense should also be led by Crosby, who will play in his first healthy season since dealing with lingering concussion symptoms that cost him the better part of the previous two seasons.

But while all that firepower will carry Pittsburgh into the playoffs, how far they go will be placed solely at the hands of Fleury and Vokoun. Unless Fleury recaptures his old form or Vokoun starts playing as good as he has his whole career, the Pens are looking at another early-round exit.

This team’s playoffs hope lives and dies with its goal-tending. No matter how many times the offense can save, it will be fruitless if Fleury cannot stop the puck.