PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 20: Tyler Kennedy #48 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his first period goal with teammates against the Winnipeg Jets during the game at Consol Energy Center on March 20, 2012 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
In their best form of the year, the Pittsburgh Penguins are the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.
The standings may not reflect the statement in the headline just yet, but make no mistake, the Pittsburgh Penguins are the most-feared team in the Eastern Conference. Currently, the Penguins are in the midst of their best run of the season, winning 13 of their last 14 games. The Pens trail the Rangers by one point in the race for the Atlantic Division crown and top seed in the East. They have won their last nine games at Consol Energy Center. Sidney Crosby has finally recovered from the symptoms of his head injury. Or maybe it was his neck injury. In any case, he's back and putting up points. Things are good for the flightless birds, to say the least.
Marc-Andre Fleury is the first goalie in the NHL this season to reach the 40-win mark. Evgeni Malkin has continued his torrid pace after Crosby's return. James Neal has continued to score and have a career year playing alongside Malkin. Jordan Staal continues to have arguably his best season at both ends of the ice. Guys like Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis continue to contribute like role players on Stanley Cup winning teams ought to. Kris Letang is healthy and a vital addition to an already talented power play unit. And, yeah, we almost forgot about that Crosby guy. He's busy turning Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke into goal-scoring threats. That is a scary thought, indeed.
Take a look at what the Penguins have done on this current run. In their last five wins, the Pens have an average margin of victory of 3.5 goals per game. These wins have come against the Devils, Rangers, Bruins, Jets, and Predators, respectively. Not exactly a list of bottom-dwellers. Each of those teams are either in the playoff picture or fighting for their playoff lives. And the Pens have dominated puck possession and shots on goal, while dictating the flow of the game.
This is why the Pens are set up so well for the playoffs. With an already-stout defense and a proven goalie, the Penguins present matchup problems like no other team in the league. Will teams load up to try and stop the Malkin line? Many will try, but good luck.
Also, good luck to those given the challenge of shutting down the Crosby and Staal lines. Maybe a coach decides to stop Crosby, because when healthy, he is, you know, the most talented player in the world. Sounds like a great idea. Until Malkin, Neal, and Kunitz step onto the ice. Or maybe Jordan Staal decides to take over a game offensively like he has done on many occasions this season. The matchup problems the Penguins currently present are probably some of the toughest in NHL history.
Penguins fans have been extraordinarily lucky to have the obscene amount talent come through the franchise over the last 25 years. But this Penguins team may be the most special of the bunch, when healthy. And health is the key to success. If this team stays on the ice for the remainder of the season and through the NHL Playoffs, there is no team that can match its talent.
Every other Eastern Conference team has its flaws. The Rangers probably don't have the scoring to keep up with the Pens. The Bruins haven't been themselves this season. As for the Flyers, we never know for sure if their goalie will try to stop the puck in the playoffs, so there's that. So, who can beat a healthy Penguins team four out of seven games?