As one of the top teams in the NHL and the Eastern Conference, the Pittsburgh Penguins have defined themselves as one of the league's Stanley Cup contenders in the first half of the 2013-14 NHL season.
Even without Evgeni Malkin (missing for nine consecutive games now) and a variety of defenders, the Penguins have been able to prey on their weaker divisional foes and now have a 13-point lead in the Metropolitan.
They are hardly alone at the top of the pile though, and have several squads vying to become king of the mountain as well. Who are they, and how does Pittsburgh stack up?
For the purposes of this examination, we're comparing the Penguins to each division leader—the Montreal Canadiens have been subbed in since Pittsburgh leads their grouping. This isn't to say that (for example) the L.A. Kings or San Jose Sharks aren't Cup contenders—they are.
Using the top teams in each division was just the easiest way to break everything down without making too many predictions with more than half a season left to be played. We'll also assume that the Penguins will be healthier moving forward, and might write about injured players and the impact they could have within the next few months.
We'll see how the teams stack up at forward, in net and on the blue line. We've also included the vague "intangibles" section as a sort of catch-all.
All stats appear courtesy of NHL.com.
Forwards: A healthy Boston Bruins team could give the Penguins a little trouble up front. It can be argued that the Penguins have a better top line, but Boston's third unit has been outstanding this year while Pittsburgh's continues to search for an identity.
On the whole, the two squads are pretty evenly matched, with the combination of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin giving the Penguins more straight-up game-breaking power while Boston has stronger two-way players.
Defense: The P's and B's are pretty close here too, but Pittsburgh might have the deepest pool of defensive talent in the NHL at this point. Dennis Seidenberg is out for the year in Boston, which really hurts its top four.
All things considered, Pittsburgh has the edge due to the emergence of Olli Maatta and Matt Niskanen.
Goaltending: Few goalies play more games than Marc-Andre Fleury and Tuukka Rask. The former is first in the NHL with 22 wins, while the latter is fourth with 20. While the outcomes of those contests have been similar, there is some discrepancy in save percentage and GAA when comparing the two.
Rask has a GAA that stands below 2.00, while Fleury is posting a respectable—but not dominant—2.15. There is a sizable gap between their respective save percentages as well, with Rask possessing a .932 while Fleury has a .920.
It's also impossible to ignore what happened the last time Pittsburgh's netminder was in a pressure-packed playoff situation.
Intangibles: While a majority of the Eastern Conference struggles to piece together strong rosters, the Penguins and Bruins have become two of the strongest franchises in the league. Tack on the fact that these two squads absolutely hate each other, and it seems like just about anything can happen when they take the ice to square off.
Forwards: This matchup would feature a few of the best centers in the world, with Crosby and Malkin trading chances and goals with Steven Stamkos. Some pundits expected the Tampa Bay Lightning to fall off without their all-world sniper, but they've persevered just like the Penguins have through their glut of injuries.
Pittsburgh has a stronger group at first glance, but don't underestimate the impact that forwards such as Valtteri Filppula and Martin St. Louis can have on a nightly basis.
Defense: When it comes to average goals allowed, Pittsburgh is sixth (2.29) and Tampa is seventh (2.32) right now. Pittsburgh has more name recognition, but don't underestimate the lockdown capabilities of Radko Gudas or Eric Brewer.
Goaltending: Ben Bishop is a newcomer to the Vezina Trophy conversation, but he's 21-5-3 this year and is in the top five in every individual stat category when it comes to goaltending. He's bailed the Lightning out during this Stamkos-less time, and could very well manage to outplay Fleury in a straight up goaltending dual.
Intangibles: Both the Penguins and the Lightning are tough to beat when they score first or carry a lead into the first intermission. They are among the NHL's best when it comes from playing with the advantage on the scoreboard, making the first goal of the game more important than usual when these two teams play.
Forwards: On any given night the Montreal Canadiens are capable of looking like one of the top squads in the NHL. Sometimes they go off the rails though, and inconsistent scoring is one of the main reasons why the team has struggled at times.
Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec and Alex Galchenyuk are all capable of putting up some numbers, but if both coaches just rolled four lines, Pittsburgh's forwards would come out on top more often than not.
Defense: Montreal has a handful of forwards disguised as defensemen. Namely P.K. Subban. He's the team's leading scorer and can take over shifts with his speed and rushing ability. The D's general tendency to gamble could benefit a patient Pittsburgh attack, though.
Goaltending: To reiterate, Fleury has been everything that the Penguins have needed him to be this season. Carey Price seems to have reached a new level of play, though, and is among the top goaltenders in the league when it comes to personal stats.
Both goalies have reputation has guys that struggle when the pressure is on, and a bout between the two of them could be interesting.
Intangibles: Michel Therrien would certainly like to exact some revenge on his old team, right?
Forwards: If there's a team in the NHL that can counter the Penguins line for line without juggling or fighting for matchups, it's the Chicago Blackhawks. These two teams haven't played each other yet this season so there's really no pulse yet, but by the end of March we'll have a better idea of how the teams square off.
Chicago has an excellent mix of two-way forwards and skill guys, and some of the most marquee names in the business would be involved with this particular tilt. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, James Neal, Crosby, Malkin, Chris Kunitz... that's a staggering amount of firepower.
Chicago is first in average goals scored. Pittsburgh is fifth. Oh, those poor goalies.
Defense: The Blackhawks have just as much two-way capability on their blue line as they do up front. Duncan Keith is a known commodity, but Nick Leddy and Niklas Hjalmarsson have emerged as outstanding defenders that can post some points if given time and space.
That isn't to say that Pittsburgh doesn't have an equally talented group, but Chicago's blue line might have the edge due to its overall mobility.
Goaltending: When it comes down to underappreciated goalies, it might be a coin flip between Corey Crawford and Fleury. Neither have to stand on their heads to secure wins very often due to the talent that's in front of them, yet neither can give away softies every night either.
Intangibles: Gary Bettman would do a standing-backflip if these two teams met in the Stanley Cup Final. Ratings could potentially be record breaking as two powerhouse sports cities took each other on for the ultimate prize.
Aforementioned star power wouldn't hurt ratings either.
Forwards: More so than any other team mentioned here, the Penguins could struggle with the Anaheim Ducks and their big-bodied forwards. Size isn't everything in the NHL (contrary to what Brain Burke seems to believe) but Crosby and Co. struggled with Boston's size and weight advantage last year in the Eastern Conference Final.
Would they be able to overcome that against Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Dustin Penner?
Overall Anaheim has the third-most effective offense in the league, and it has an underrated group of depth forwards that give opposing coaches fits.
Defense: Anaheim's defense isn't high on name recognition, but as a unit it gets the job done. The Ducks are right there with Pittsburgh in terms of allowing fewer goals than just about any other team and keeping the opposition's shots to a minimum.
Cam Fowler leads the charge on offense, while the criminally underrated Francois Beauchemin is a stalwart on the back end. Hampus Lindholm is Anaheim's version of Olli Maatta, rounding out a strong top six.
Goaltending: Pittsburgh has the better bona fide No. 1 guy in Fleury, but Anaheim's goaltending depth is incredible. It could lose its top two netminders and still ice a player that is capable of stealing games. Three goalies isn't better than one in the playoffs typically, but injuries do happen.
Intangibles: Ducks versus Penguins doesn't have a sexy marquee like Pittsburgh versus Chicago, but there's definitely a lot of fun elements to the matchup.
Anaheim has one of the lower-rated penalty kills in the league, which might prevent it from pushing the Penguins around as much as it'd like. Pittsburgh has the best power play in the NHL, and you just can't hand it chances.
Forwards: Alexander Steen has been stealing headlines all season long, but this is a deep and talented forward core that is capable of playing various roles. It has a playoff intensity all year long, thrives in physical games and this might be the most offensively talented and creative team that Ken Hitchcock has ever coached.
The St. Louis Blues feature a number of skilled forwards that are tough to play against, making them one of the toughest outs when the postseason rolls around.
Defense: Despite scoring a bunch of goals, the Blues typically wait for their chances and don't let their defensemen get out of position too often. That's why they also give up the fourth-fewest goals per game on average.
That isn't to say that they don't have a few defenders that can't jump up on the rush though. Kevin Shattenkirk is one of the best young puck-moving defensemen around, and Alex Pietrangelo has reached a new level thanks to Jay Bouwmeester.
Goaltending: St. Louis has the same goaltending scenario as the Ducks. Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott can be among the hottest or coldest goalies in the NHL at any given moment, but one or the other is usually prepared to do some heavy lifting.
Intangibles: There's always a little extra energy in these mid-America clashes. A 10-hour drive stands between St. Louis and Pittsburgh so transplant fans aren't numerous, but Steel City against Mound City has a ring to it.