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January 10, 2013 | 7:04pm ET
Season Preview: Pittsburgh
By Patrick Kearns, TheFourthPeriod.com

Last year, the Pittsburgh Penguins put together one of the most shocking playoff performances in the quest for the Stanley Cup. Their goaltending and defense were awful and even two of the most talented players in the world could not carry the team past the Philadelphia Flyers.

The team concentrated solely on defense in the off-season, drafting two defensive players in the first round. They also made a blockbuster trade shipping Jordan Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes in a deal that brought Brandon Sutter to Steeltown. Staal was stuck behind Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby on the depth chart, so a deal made sense, but the team may miss his strong two-way play.

Forwards

Malkin, the reigning Art Ross and Hart Trophy winner, is arguably the best offensive player in the world. The argument stems from his teammate Sidney Crosby, who when healthy, makes a strong, strong case in his favor. The combination of these two centers is enough to make any team an instant favorite. For years, the two centers had to carry the team without any real help on the wings. Wingers like Chris Kunitz and Tyler Kennedy have put together nice seasons, but ever since Marian Hossa's one year stint with the team, scoring wingers have been a problem. Now they have James Neal, who is climbing to NHL stardom, to pass the puck to. They will also need to get offense out of their bottom six, and Sutter will need to make up for a lot of the offense that will be missed with the departure of Staal.

Defense

Consistent play from the backend was problematic for the Penguins last season. Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek were less than stellar, and left quite a few opportunities for opposing scorers. Michalek was shipped back to the desert, but Martin will need to step his game up. Kris Letang has been one of the top offensive players in the league from the blueline, but will need to step up his defensive game. Along with shutdown defender Brooks Orpik, the two will need to hold firm on the blueline.

Goalies

From here stemmed the biggest problem of the Penguins' 2011-12 season. Marc-Andre Fleury, who was drafted first-overall and led the Penguins to their first Stanley Cup victory in over two decades, was the long-term solution. He played well for years until last season's playoff blow-up. The Penguins acquired Tomas Vokoun to spell some of the work, and hopefully push Fleury to an elite level. Fleury is still the future of this franchise, but may have a short leash in the shortened season. There is a good chance that head coach Dan Bylsma will ride the hot hand.

Projected Outcome

There is too much talent on Pittsburgh to not compete for the top spot in the East. There will be a three-way battle for the Atlantic Division crown between the Penguins, Rangers and Flyers, but a healthy Sidney Crosby means the Pens are the favorites.

3 Players to Watch
 
Sidney Crosby
Crosby's injury has been documented ad nauseum. He lost a ton of games due to his concussion, but appeared close to the same player when he returned. If there are no lingering issues, he could be the league MVP this year.
Evgeni Malkin
Malkin is a dominate player on the ice. In Crosby's absence last season, he absolutely controlled games, and scores goals that very few players in the league can. He, along with Crosby, are the main reason why this team could be raising the Stanley Cup in June.
Marc-Andre Fleury
Fleury will need to be consistent in order for the Penguins to end the season as champions. His mighty struggles were well documented last year, and he will play into whether or not the team succeeds or fails just as much as any guy on the ice. With Vokoun looking over his shoulder, he needs to impress every time he takes the ice.

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