March of the Penguins: Evgeni Malkin Carries Pittsburgh

KP WeeSenior Writer IFebruary 11, 2008

The ever-changing Eastern Conference standings have had a new team emerge at the top in the past few days.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, left for dead by many experts following Sidney Crosby's right ankle injury on January 18th, have now made it to top spot in the Atlantic Division.

Despite losing Crosby for the last ten games, the Penguins have gone 6-2-2, and are now holding down the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference's overall standings.

Yes, goalie Ty Conklin has been a feel-good story so far, as he has continued his resurgence. Conklin, who started the year as a backup, is now a stunning 14-3-3 with a 2.26 goals-against average and .929 save percentage.

But Pittsburgh's turnaround should of course be credited to Evgeni Malkin, who is scoring at a pace seen in Pittsburgh in the championship years when Mario Lemieux was still around.

Malkin now has eight goals and 21 points in the ten games that Crosby has missed; a truly remarkable feat.

In the latest game, the Penguins beat the Philadelphia Flyers 4-3 on Sunday, with Malkin getting his 31st goal of the season and adding three assists.

With Malkin's latest scoring outburst, he has now moved up the ladder in the NHL scoring race with 73 points, just three shy of leader Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals.

The Flyers, Malkin's latest victims, have lost three straight—two one-goal defeats and the other a 2-0 loss—and have now fallen all the way to sixth place in the conference.

At one point last week, the Flyers were themselves ranked No. 2

This has become the norm in the new NHL, where a mini-slump can mean falling a few spots in the standings.

However, this has not been the problem for the Crosby-less Penguins, who have continued winning, and are now only three points (69) behind the East-leading Senators (72).

It should be interesting if the Penguins and Capitals—currently No. 3 in the East—both make it to the playoffs; and the NHL can showcase the likes of Crosby—who isn't expected back for a few weeks—and Malkin, as well as Ovechkin.

In fact, if the Penguins should falter, which is possible, (how long can they realistically keep this winning going without Crosby?) and say, stumble to sixth, we might see a Pittsburgh-Washington first-rounder.

Wouldn't THAT be something?

Pens versus Caps—all the young studs trying to outscore each other.

These two teams met seven times in the playoffs from 1991 to 2001, and after a five-year layoff—not counting the lockout year of 2005—could they face off against each other again?

There is still a quarter of the season left for teams to jockey for playoff positioning—the Pens with 26 more games while the Caps have 25—so nothing is set in stone yet.

But wouldn't it be great to see that rivalry get revived in the NHL?

How much longer will Malkin and the Penguins keep winning? Will Washington hang on to the No. 3 seed? Other than Pittsburgh-Washington, what other intriguing potential playoff matchups would you like to see?