The Penguins are off to a quick 4-1 start and nobody will be surprised if they finish in the top-four in the Eastern Conference.
Nor will anyone be surprised if Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin finish in the top-five in scoring or if Marc-Andre Fleury posts 35-40 regular season victories.
Likewise, nobody will be surprised if the Penguins bow out early once again in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The fact is that Pittsburgh’s regular season really is just an 82-game pre-season.
A team so deep in talent is judged by its performance in the playoffs, not the regular season and in the past four post-seasons the Penguins received a failing grade.
There have been many, many reasons for their playoff collapses since their Stanley Cup championship in 2009. The primary one is the lackluster play of Fleury.
It’s hard to ignore the facts. On the way to the 2008 Stanley Cup Final appearance Fleury had a save percentage of .993 and an impressive 1.97 Goals Against Average (GAA) in 20 playoff contests.
The next playoff season his save percentage was a respectable .908 with a GAA of 2.61 in 24 playoff games played en route to backstopping the Penguins to a Stanley Cup championship.
Since those two Stanley Cup Final appearances, Fleury’s save percentages have dipped to .891, .899, .834, and .883 respectively in the past four post-seasons. Similarly, his GAA has ballooned to 2.78, 2.52, 4.63, and 3.52.
His appearances have steadily decreased as well, playing 13, 7, 6, and 5 post-season games respectively in each of the past four playoffs. Just as his appearances have decreased, so has his confidence, to the point where the Penguins asked him to see a sports psychologist.
Fleury lately has been rather mum on the subject, but we’ll find out if the sessions helped once the playoffs begin.
Goaltending has certainly been an issue for the Penguins in the post-season, but so have myriad other problems such as lack of discipline, terrible power plays, even worse, penalty killing, and a general abandonment of anything that had made the team successful in the regular season.
Early indications are that the Penguins are on track. Crosby has five goals in five games, Fleury has a 4-1 record and the team is in the top-five in goals per game. Pittsburgh surely will entertain, amaze and excel through the 82-game regular season, but analysts and Penguins fans alike will still have their doubts once the playoffs begin.
If the Penguins bow out early again this post-season the dismantling surely will begin.