With the sports world focused on the NCAA Tournament and the beginning of baseball season, the Pittsburgh Penguins have taken the NHL by storm. The talented Penguins have ripped off 15 straight wins, all but locked up the top seed in the Eastern Conference, and passed Chicago for the best record overall. In today’s NHL analysis, TheSportsNotebook will break down how Pittsburgh is doing it, and then take a brief look at the overall postseason landscape in the East.
There’s never been any doubt that the Penguins can light the lamp. They lead the league in scoring goals and are loaded with individual talent. Sidney Crosby has been healthy and has accumulated more points than any other player, leading the NHL in assists and being one of four players who are in the top 15 in goals. In the latter category he’s joined by Chris Kunitz, James Neal and Pascal Dupuis.
This alone would make Pittsburgh a potent offensive lineup, but we haven’t even gotten to Evgeni Malkin, who was merely the MVP of the league a year ago. Malkin’s missed some games this year and his numbers are down, particularly scoring, but even so he’s still a top 30 assists man. And more important, we know what he’s capable of going forward if the Penguins feel like they need him to shoot and score more frequently.
And if this weren’t enough, Pittsburgh got richer at the trade deadline, adding forward Jerome Iginla from Calgary, a solid scorer and passer. Kris Letang is productive from his defenseman spot, and the Penguins just keep churning out the offense, regardless of whether they’re in a power play or conventional 5-on-5 action.
It’s defense in general and goaltending in particular that caused Pittsburgh’s early ouster from the playoffs a year ago. The Penguins are in the top five when it comes to preventing goals in this shortened season, so it’s “so far so good.” However, they are a mediocre 14th in shots allowed, putting a lot of pressure on the goaltending tandem of Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun, and the penalty kill is subpar, at 18th.
This facet of the game is going to heighten dramatically in importance when we get to postseason play at the end of the month. Fleury is long removed from his days as a Stanley Cup-winning goalie back in 2008 and I’ve never been a Vokoun believer, going back to his days as a part of Washington’s perennial playoff disappointment.
Pittsburgh deserves a lot of admiration for their skill level and the extraordinary run they’re on right now. But before we make them a top-heavy favorite in the East, let’s see the defense tighten up on shots allowed and then we have to see the goaltenders do it when the rubber hits the road in the playoffs.
BIG APPLE DRAMA
The New York Rangers are going to get very familiar with the Penguins this week, playing nationally televised games on both Wednesday on NBC Sports Network and Friday on the NHL Network. The Rangers are currently tied with their crosstown rival Islanders for the final playoff spot in the East. It’s a big David-vs-Goliath battle, as the Rangers had the best record in the East a year ago, and the Islanders have been in the toilet for a long time. The Big Apple drama is heightened by the involvement of New Jersey in this race—the Devils are seventh in the conference, but have just a four-point lead on the two New York teams. What a story it would be if the Islanders get into the playoffs by beating out the East’s best 2012 regular season team and its eventual conference champ all in one fell swoop. We can further add to the regional tensions by noting that Philadelphia is four points out of the playoffs.
Montreal & Boston continue to joust for the Northeast Division title, with the #2 seed going to the winner and the runner-up likely settling in at #4. The Canadiens have a three-point lead, although the Bruins have one additional game in hand. Ottawa and Toronto look unlikely to win the division, but both are comfortable in their playoff position in what’s been a strong season in the Northeast.
The Southeast is the worst of the divisions, but that also means it promises a dramatic finish. Winnipeg leads the pack and would automatically get the 3-seed, but they’re only four points ahead of Carolina and Washington, both of whom are on the outside, looking in. Florida won this division a year ago, but is near the bottom of the conference this time around. Tampa Bay is the same, something the league surely doesn’t want to see, given that Steven Stamkos leads the NHL in goals, but won’t be on stage in the playoffs.