Pittsburgh Penguins: Strongest Team in the Playoffs?

Scott BrownCorrespondent IMarch 13, 2009

Throughout the season, the Pittsburgh Penguins have just about every label you can think up attached to them. They started off as the trendy pick to run away with the East after last years amazing Stanley Cup run.

Then they became the team that everyone loved to hate. Suddenly Sidney Crosby, leading scorer in the NHL since the lockout, was over-rated and over-exposed and he the Penguins represented everything that was wrong with the new NHL.

A horrible finish to December and miserable January saw the Pens fall out of the playoff picture, and subsequently they became the biggest underachievers in the League.  Even boasting the top two scorers in the NHL, the Penguins were not certain of a playoff spot, something that was unthinkable when the season began.

Finally, on the heels of a recently snapped seven-game winning streak which saw them climb back into the playoffs for the first time since the All-Star Break, I ask the question: Have the Penguins become the most dangerous team in the 2009 playoffs?  That dreaded first-round matchup that no team in the East wants to see in round one.

I liken this late season push to that of the New York Giants in 2007.  They entered the playoffs as a wild-card team and the hottest team in the NFL. They exited the playoffs that year as the winners of the Super Bowl, and the only team in the NFL that year to claim victory over the New England Patriots.

I believe that the Penguins have solidified their lineup with the additions of Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz. Kristopher Letang has even show that he might be an upgrade over Whitney, now that he is in the lineup every night.  

Perhaps the biggest addition this year comes from the return of Sergei Gonchar. It's clear to me that his absence was something that Pittsburgh just couldn't overcome and they are simply not the same team when he doesn't dress. 

Finally, the coaching change to Dan Bylesma seems to have paid off. The Pens had 50 shots the other night against Florida, a total they would have needed three games under Therien to meet. 

I still have to believe that New Jersey is the favorite in the East, Martin Brodeur's injury means they will have a fresh out-of-this-planet goaltender in the playoffs for the first time in about 10 years. The fact they did so well without him proved that they are a team not to be taken lightly.  

Yet, I still have to believe that the Devils, just like every other top-four team in the NHL, are looking at their possible first-round matchup candidates and hoping that the Penguins don't line up in that slot. 

If the Pens do clinch that elusive playoff berth it won't be long before they get one moniker this season—trendy dark-horse pick to win the Stanley Cup in 2009.