Can the Pittsburgh Penguins catch the New York Rangers for the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs? A few weeks ago it seemed nearly impossible, but the Penguins are riding a season-high eight game winning streak and have crept to within four points of the Rangers. The Penguins have two games left with the Rangers, March 15th at Madison Square Garden, and April 5th at CONSOL Energy Center. Those two games notwithstanding, the Penguins face a rather grueling final portion of their schedule. They will play 15 games in 28 days to finish the season and of those games, only three are against teams that are currently out of the playoff race; the Islanders twice and Buffalo once.
Meanwhile, the Rangers face a grueling home stretch of their own. They too will play 15 games in 28 days, however, the quality of their opponents is significantly less than the Penguins’ foes. The Rangers still have games against bottom-dwellers like the Islanders, Hurricanes, Avalanche, Sabres, Maple Leafs, and Wild. While the Rangers seem to have the decided edge in strength of schedule, or lack thereof, the Penguins do have a wild card in that Sidney Crosby is set to return.
Crosby certainly will provide a boost to a Penguins team that is already on a roll. Crosby at even 80% still does more for the Penguins than even acquiring the likes of Rick Nash at the trade deadline could have done. Having a healthy Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal in the lineup presents significant match-up problems for opponents. While some teams can match the Penguins’ top two lines, no team can match a third line that is centered by Staal. Another wild card for the Penguins is getting Kris Letang back. He is a minutes-eater and a vital part of the power play. If he had not been injured for so many games he would have likely been a Norris Trophy candidate.
The Penguins are certainly peaking at the right time, going 12-1 in their last 13 home games and 20-4-1 in their last 25 games. In those 25 games they have scored 85 goals, good for an impressive average of 3.40 goals per game. Lately, the Penguins have also been the comeback kids. In fact, the Penguins are tied with the Lightning for the most victories when trailing after two periods, with eight.
The Penguins have been excellent on special teams as well, ranking first overall on the penalty kill, killing opponents’ penalties at a rate of 89.3%. Additionally, the Penguins rank third in the NHL with nine short-handed goals. Moreover, despite going 0-14 since Letang left the lineup, the Penguins’ power play still ranks seventh overall, with a conversion rate of 19.6%.
So, do all of these impressive numbers add up to the Penguins catching the Rangers for the Eastern Conference’s top seed? With a healthy Crosby and Letang anything is possible, but given the comparison of the Rangers’ and Penguins’ opponents down the stretch run, it does not seem likely. What does seem likely, however, is the Penguins and the Rangers meeting in the Eastern Conference’s semi-final or final round; and what a series that would be.