It is probably the most annoying story lead in sports..."If the playoffs started today..."
There is plenty of storylines left to write before the Eastern Conference playoff pairings shake out in three weeks. There is some near certainty and plenty of the unknown in the last dozen games of the regular season.
The Bruins, Devils, and Capitals are virtual locks as one, two and three respectively. With the always-underrated team chemistry, the Pittsburgh Penguins have morphed into a strong contender to go deep into the postseason.
A mere five weeks ago, Pittsburgh had a team with unmotivated players, and a coach with a system that wasn’t working. The playoffs could well have become a distant dream if major changes didn’t come about.
General Manager Ray Shero looks like a genius to his organization, promoting their minor league coach and making trades for players with a stockpile of Stanley Cup experience.
When Dan Bylsma took over behind the bench, the Pens were in tenth place. They went to overtime against Bill Guerin and the Islanders before losing in a shootout. Since that matinee on Long Island, the interim coach has led his team to a 12-1-2 record.
Guerin shed his Isles sweater for a Penguins jersey at the trade deadline and has scored three goals and added seven assists on the top line with Sidney Crosby. Chris Kunitz came over in a swap with Anaheim for Ryan Whitney and made an immediate impact.
Combine that with a Lazarus-like rejuvenation by Jordan Staal and the return of Sergei Gonchar from a long injury rehab and you have a lethal combination of talent and experience rolling toward the playoffs.
"We knew we had good players," Staal told the media after Friday’s victory over the Kings. "It was just a matter of coming together and playing good hockey. I envisioned us playing like this, but not this quickly."
The fact that Evgeni Malkin and Sid own the top two spots in points scoring helps, too.
Watch the Penguins play with any regularity now, and you might have a tough time finding a weak link in the chain.
The power play is clicking, the players’ roles are defined, they have four solid lines capable of scoring, the team is playing north and south hockey and most importantly they are winning games.
Compared to Feb. 15 with former coach Michel Therrien at the helm when the question was “will they make the playoffs,” the question today is “what team does the Penguins face first in the postseason?”
Seven teams are separated by ten points and fighting for the remaining five places (after division leaders Boston, New Jersey and Washington) in the Eastern Conference.
The Rangers have two games in-hand on the Pens and would be a challenging first round test. Agitator Sean Avery is back in the fold and the team acquired Nik Antropov at the deadline. The Blueshirts have a three-game win streak going with 11 left; they are the biggest question mark in standings at season’s end.
Don’t rule out surging Carolina slipping into fifth place. They extended their home win streak to nine, just one short of the franchise record. The Hurricanes made the Capitals look mortal Saturday in a 4-1 win over Ovechkin and the Caps.
Speaking of mortal, Tim Thomas has shown some weakness in the last couple games. The Bruins goalie gave up a combined seven goals against the Pens and Kings, and set to play the Devils today.
There is a good chance that the Pens and Flyers will meet, which might be the best scenario for Pittsburgh. Both teams are evenly matched with great depth and good goaltending.
Both coaches were promoted from their respective AHL teams, but Bylsma would most certainly not want his team to meet any of the top three in the first round.
A fourth place finish in the conference would give them home-ice in the first round. But, their cross-state rivals have three games in hand. As the regular season draws near, can the Pens keep up the torrid point streak?
Perhaps a more gross statement than “if the playoffs started today” is a projection over a whole season from a snapshot of the last five weeks. But, look at the Penguins’ last 16 games: Their 12-1-3 record translates to 138 points over an 82-game season.
That figures to 19 more points than the most in franchise history, set by the unbelievable 1992-93 team when Lemieux, Francis, Tocchet, and Stevens each scored at least 100 points and Jagr was only six shy of triple digits.
Pens coach Dan Bylsma doesn’t have time to reminisce over history. He is more focused on winning in the nine games left and continuing his team’s hot streak into Lord Stanley’s playoffs.