As the playoffs near, what can we expect from the Pittsburgh Penguins?
Exactly a month ago, the Penguins were 27-25-6, and on the outside of the playoffs in the 10 slot by five points. Today, they are tied for fourth place in the conference, securely in the playoffs by six points over the ninth place Panthers. The Penguins, however, have played more games than anyone in the Eastern Conference besides the Capitals. There's even a chance for the fourth seed, but with Philadelphia having three games in hand, that is very unlikely.
What can be attributed to this change? Perhaps the firing of Michel Therrien and his defensive style trap and bringing in Dan Bylsma and his wide-open system. Perhaps it was players believing that the rest of this season will determine if they still have a job in Pittsburgh next year. Maybe it was bringing along Bill Guerin, Chris Kunitz, Craig Adams, and letting go of the -15 Ryan Whitney, and the streaky Miro Satan.
Currently, the Penguins are clicking on all cylinders. One minor issue, though, is their consistency in goaltending. Fleury has been solid over the past month, but he has also given up a good amount of goals. That is the only GLARING weakness I see as of March 18, 2009.
Even though Fleury hasn't been outstanding recently, he has been getting more confident, and playing much, much better. Not as well as he was playing last year after coming back from his injury, but solid hockey nonetheless.
Going into the postseason I think the Penguins will be best served in the five or six slot. In one of those two slots, they avoid the Devils and Bruins in the first round of the playoffs. On the other hand, they could get either the Capitals or the Flyers—two teams that are no slouches.
Why would the Penguins want to avoid the Devils and Bruins but not the Capitals or Flyers? Because the Devils have the best goaltender on the planet who will be 100 percent healthy and fairly fresh come playoff time; that automatically gives them an advantage. You also have to consider that the Devils are winning games this year on offense, instead of barely getting by as in previous years.
The Bruins are getting scoring from just about everyone. Ten players have 10+ goals, including eight guys over 15, and four over 20. They also have a first-class goaltender in Tim Thomas and an experienced back-up in Manny Fernandez, who led the Minnesota Wild to the Western Conference Finals in 2002-03.
Even though the Bruins have struggled for the past month, they can be lethal again with a two to three game win streak.
Why should the Penguins want the Capitals or Flyers? Because neither team has a goaltender like Brodeur, and neither team has the balanced attack that the Bruins have, combined with a top-flight goaltender.
Yes, the Captials and Flyers are rivals, and the series would be more intense. I just feel the Penguins are better matched up against either team. The Penguins dispatched the Flyers from the postseason last year with relative ease, and the team always seems to have an extra step in them when they play Ovechkin and the Capitals.
Fans of the Caps and Flyers: Do not take this as me taking the teams lightly. I don't. I just feel they are the best first round matchup for my Penguins this postseason. I expect any first round series to possibly go seven games, not to mention the entertainment value out of seeing Caps/Flyers vs. Penguins in the first round. It could surely help bring much needed attention to the sport on a nightly basis in April and May.
With the playoffs coming around the corner, what can we realistically expect from the Penguins the rest of the way to affect their seeding?
I expect them to play full bore the rest of the year and make a run at the 100-point plateau. A tough task, but not impossible. If that happens, they have the chance to be the fourth seed in the conference. Realistically, though, the fifth or sixth spot seems the most realistic for these Penguins.
Only time will tell, but let's hope this run doesn't end in the first round.
So what's the biggest factor to this run? What type of impact will they have in the postseason? Again, only time will tell.