The Penguins, a popular choice to win the Stanley Cup in 2013, will enter this year's playoffs as a decided underdog to Boston in the Eastern Conference and a handful of clubs from the West. ■ Nonetheless, unless Bubonic Plague sweeps through their locker room and puts all hands on injured-reserve -- probably about a 50-50 possibility, given their medical luck this season -- the Penguins can reasonably be expected to advance at least as far as the Eastern final. ■ Regardless of how long they last, however, there are three guys whose playoff performances will attract particularly intense scrutiny:
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There was some short-lived uncertainty -- outside the organization, anyway -- about Bylsma's future after Boston swept the Penguins in the Eastern final last spring, but management quickly gave him the ultimate vote of confidence: A contract extension.
Nothing in his deal guarantees that he'll be behind the bench here when it expires after the 2015-16 season, however.
The Penguins have lost to a lower-seeded opponent every year since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009 and at some point, ownership might tire of seeing its team upset annually.
Bylsma bears at least some of the responsibility for the Penguins' frequent lapses in discipline and focus of late, and his apparent lack of interest in trying to get favorable matchups for key personnel is curious. And certainly invites criticism.
There's nothing wrong with believing that, say, Sidney Crosby can get the best of a head-to-head battle with Zdeno Chara of Boston, but that doesn't mean Crosby should be compelled to try to prove it. Putting players in the best possible position to succeed is an important part of a coach's mandate.
What seems to be largely overlooked by Bylsma's ever-growing legion of critics is the role he and his staff played in the remarkable record the Penguins ran up before their recent stumble.
Despite leading the league in man-games lost to injury -- many to players who fill key roles -- the Penguins built an effectively insurmountable lead in the Metropolitan Division, assuring themselves of no worse than the No. 2 seed in the Eastern playoffs.
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury
He has been the primary lightning rod for fan discontent after each of the past four playoff runs.
Playoff hockey tends to be lower-scoring than the regular-season variety, but Fleury's postseason goals-against average and save percentage have been worse than his regular-season numbers in each of the past four seasons.
Fleury's playoff fortunes hit their nadir last spring, during which Tomas Vokoun replaced him after four games of the first-round playoff series against the New York Islanders.
Fleury is having an outstanding regular season -- arguably the best of his career -- and that might well be a portent for the 2014 playoffs, but he had one of those a year ago, too.
Goaltending is, by far, the most critical variable in the playoffs, and Fleury has the physical tools to be downright dominant in the postseason. His key is having everything between his ears in order.
With only one season remaining on his contract, Fleury's future here might be directly tied to how he fares this spring.
Defenseman Rob Scuderi
When general manager Ray Shero signed Scuderi as a free agent last July, he said repeatedly that he had erred by allowing Scuderi to leave after the Penguins won the Cup in 2009.
That wasn't entirely accurate -- it wouldn't have been fiscally prudent to give Scuderi the kind of contract he received from Los Angeles then -- but a far more important issue is whether Shero did the right thing by bringing him back.
Scuderi has had a largely forgettable regular season, but the reality is that he was brought back because of the impact he can have during the playoffs.
If he can be a force -- even if it's not always a visible one -- on the penalty-kill (and at all other times in the defensive zone), the investment Shero made in Scuderi will be validated.
If not, Scuderi will be just another 35-year-old defenseman with three seasons left on a hefty contract.
The week ahead
Today: vs. Chicago ... The Blackhawks have won two of the past four Stanley Cups. Three out of five certainly isn't out of the question.
Tuesday: vs. Carolina ... Jordan Staal never has said anything to suggest he regrets forcing the trade that sent him to the Hurricanes in 2012. Hard to believe he hasn't thought it a few times, though.
Thursday: at Winnipeg ... Long-range forecast calls for temperature to be slightly above freezing on game day. Yeah, good one.
Saturday: at Minnesota ... No confirmed reports of Matt Cooke strangling puppies or drowning kittens since joining the Wild last summer. Yet.