The Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils all made the playoffs last season out of the Atlantic Division. After signing Rick Nash, the Rangers are considered the favorites by many to not only to win the division but also to win the Stanley Cup.
However, are they even the best team in the Atlantic?
I hate to proclaim the Penguins as the division champions after two games. Yet, every single one of these games is now extremely important for the division race. The Penguins simply embarrassed the Rangers at Madison Square Garden Sunday night.
Their explosive offense led the way by scoring six goals against last year’s Vezina Trophy winner, Henrik Lundqvist. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin didn’t score any goals, but they combined for four assists.
Left winger James Neal, who has three goals so far this season, adds to the Penguins offensive depth.
Actually, the fact that the Penguins have scored so often this season without any goals from Crosby or Malkin shows that the team won’t have to be as dependent on them anymore. Their abundance of scorers will help a lot in the playoffs compared to just one elite line.
The Penguins have dominated the Rangers recently by winning eight of their last 10 matchups, including five straight. The Rangers have been unable to match the Penguins' firepower, which was the big reason why they acquired the high-scoring Nash in the offseason.
Besides beating the Rangers, the Penguins opened up the regular season by beating the Philadelphia Flyers on the road. The Flyers knocked the Penguins out of the playoffs last year. After the constant shootouts between these two teams, the Penguins held the Flyers to only one goal this past meeting.
The Penguins already have four point leads over the Rangers and Flyers in the division. Even though it’s only two games, the fact that the Penguins won a road head-to-head matchup against these teams is extremely important. Since every game counts even more than they normally do, winning two divisional road games this early is huge.
The scary part is that I don’t think the Penguins are even at their best, yet. Their two best players have only five combined points this season. When Crosby and Malkin start dominating the ice again, the Penguins offense will be virtually unstoppable.
Also, the Penguins have an easy upcoming schedule. Their opponents in the next four games are the Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets, Ottawa Senators and New York Islanders. By the time the Penguins play the Rangers or even the Flyers again, they could be holding a big division lead.
However, the Penguins still have a couple of questions. First, they need to decide the competitive balance between their goaltenders: Marc Andre-Fleury and Tomas Vokoun. While both are expected to alternate during the season, one of them needs to separate himself from the other before the postseason.
Also, will the Penguins be able to stay healthy, especially Crosby? Health will be the most important factor for the team if they want to win the Atlantic. But, with all of the talent that the Penguins have, they should be considered the favorites in the Eastern Conference for now.