The Pittsburgh Penguins have spent nearly the entire season at the top of the NHL’s Metroplolitan Division. The Penguins still lead the Division, but no longer lead the Eastern Conference. The Atlantic Division Bruins, who are winners of ten straight, now sit atop the Eastern Conference with 99 points. In the new playoff system implemented by Gary Bettman, the top three teams in each of the two divisions in the Eastern Conference are guaranteed playoff spots, along with two wild card teams. This new system of seeding the playoffs, along with the extra point that can be earned via an overtime or shoot out wind has made the playoff picture cloudier than the skies on the East Coast have been this winter.
At the beginning of the season, two things seemed evident: the Penguins would win the Division in a landslide, and the Flyers would be on the outside looking in. The Flyers fired Coach Peter Laviolette after losing their first three games, and replaced him with Assistant Coach Craig Berube. Captain Claude Giroux, touted as one of the best players in the NHL didn’t score a goal until November 9, in Edmonton. The Flyers were left for dead by every hockey expert.
The Penguins, meanwhile, poured it on and piled on the points. Stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were shining brightly. The New York Rangers, back stopped by All Star goalie Henrik Lundqvist were humming along, as were the New Jersey Devils, anchored, as always, by goalie Martin Brodeur. The Columbus Blue Jackets, behind Vezina winning former Flyer Sergei Bobrovsky looked in good position as well. Only the lowly Buffalo Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers were being counted out.
Starting a season on a hot streak is a good thing, especially a season as long as the 82 game marathon that is the NHL season. Ending the season hot, going into the playoffs with momentum is just as important. With less than a month left in the season, a look at the last ten games by the teams fighting it out is a good barometer of who is hot and who is not. Starting from the bottom of the teams that are in contention, the New York Rangers are owner’s of the second wild card spot at the start of action tonight. Their record in their last ten games is 4-5-1. Not bad, but not exactly on fire. Their opponent tonight, the Columbus Blue Jackets, currently occupy third place. The Jackets and the Rangers both have 78 points, but the Jackets have played one less game. The Jackets last ten games have produced a record of 7-2-1…now that is a decent roll to be on with 13 games to go. The Flyers, in second place with 81 points, have the exact same record in their last ten, 7-2-1. The Flyers seven wins include two against the team the are chasing for first place, their cross state rivals from Pittsburgh. What is astounding is that the Flyers, once the cellar dwellers in this division, are only 14 points behind the Penguins. Mathematically, the Flyers could possibly win the Division. Probable? No, but it is possible.
The Penguins are still in first place, but they are having their problems, first and foremost, injuries. Goalie Tomas Vokoun is dealing with treatment for a blood clot. Chris Kunitz and James Neal were both out recently, and Kris Letang is recovering from a stroke. Evgeni Malkin is no doubt in some pain, after receiving the butt end of Detroit Red Wings forward David Legwand’s stick in a rather sensitive area. To add insult to injury, the Penguins lost the game 5-4 in overtime, and have a 5-4-1 record in their last ten games. If the Pittsburgh Penguins hope to have a long run in the playoffs,, they need to get and stay healthy, or they just might find their own version of March Madness.