The Penguins had played abysmal against both teams throughout the regular season, giving many people, including myself, reason to doubt their chances of returning to the Promised Land.
However, after the first round of the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Penguins are the highest remaining seed in the Eastern Conference with the Devils and the Capitals both falling victim to early upsets.
With all due respect to the Canadiens, Bruins, and Flyers, I'm going to make a not-so-bold prediction before the second round begins: the Pittsburgh Penguins will make the Stanley Cup Finals for a third consecutive year.
Let's take a look at how the Pens match-up with each of the three remaining teams in the Eastern Conference:
After defeating the number one seed Washington Capitals, the Canadiens look to continue their Cinderella run by knocking off the defending champs.
Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halák has been the story of the playoffs thus far.
After backing up Carey Price in Game Four, Halák came back in Games Five, Six, and Seven and allowed just three goals on 134 shots against the highest scoring team in the NHL--that's a .978 save percentage.
The big question coming into the Pens-Habs series is if Halák can continue this streak. If he can, the Canadiens have a legitimate shot at upsetting the Pens.
But I don't think he will.
If the Canadiens plan on getting out-shot as badly as they did in their opening series against the Capitals, with the same successful result, they are in for a rude awakening.
Where the Capitals relied too heavily on their top guns to carry the load, the Penguins have a handful of role players capable of stepping up at any given time, as seen in Matt Cooke and Pascal Dupuis's performance in Game Six of the Ottawa-Pittsburgh series. The Pens will get plenty of traffic in front of Halák all series long, which the Capitals failed to do.
It will be an entertaining, fast-paced series, but the Penguins will prevail to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Prediction: Penguins will win in six games.
The Flyers had one big question entering their series with the New Jersey Devils—goaltending.
While Brian Boucher has certainly answered any and all questions after his stellar first round performance, new questions have arisen thanks to a depleted Philadelphia lineup.
The injuries that litter Philadelphia's lineup have me seriously doubting their chances of defeating Boston. And even if they advance to the Conference Finals, their chances of beating Pittsburgh would be minuscule.
Anything could happen in a rivalry such as the one between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. But if the Penguins are to meet the Flyers in the Eastern Conference Finals, I don't believe Philadelphia has near the firepower necessary to keep up with Pittsburgh given the injuries to Carter, Gagne, and Laperriere.
Prediction: Penguins would win in five games.
Of the three remaining teams in the Eastern Conference, the Boston Bruins present the toughest matchup for the Penguins.
While Brian Boucher and Jaroslav Halák have been great, Tuukka Rask is the best goalie remaining in the Eastern Conference (not including Marc-Andre Fleury).
Combine Rask's play, the potential of Zdeno Chara containing Sidney Crosby, and the intensity that would accompany a Boston-Pittsburgh playoff series after the Matt Cooke hit on Marc Savard earlier this season, and the Bruins would have a serious chance of upsetting the Penguins.
That being said, the Penguins aren't the Sabres and would be able to out-score the Bruins if need be.
This series would be intense and extremely physical, but the Penguins would prevail.
Prediction: Penguins would win in six games.
Not to sound too over-confident, but the results of the first round have paved the path for the Pittsburgh Penguins to make a third straight appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals.
The last team to accomplish this feat, you ask?
The Edmonton Oilers, who made it to the finals in three straight seasons from 1982-1985.
For the Pittsburgh Penguins to accomplish such a feat with a roster full of young players would be extremely impressive—and they will.
Not one of the three remaining teams in the Eastern Conference has the capabilities to stop the Penguins from doing so.
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