Penguins: Plenty at stake for rematch of past champions
It's not just Ovechkin that has first-place team's lamp lit with confidence
January 31, 2010 3:00 PM
By Shelly Anderson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Penguins will bump visors with some strong reminders today.
Not only are they facing their opponent from the Stanley Cup final the past two years, but they also will be staring at the reality of the modern-day NHL, where no team can be pigeonholed and just about every team can be plucked for a couple of points.
Detroit beat the Penguins for the title in 2008 before things were reversed last spring, and now look at the Red Wings -- barely peeking over the playoff cutoff line in the Western Conference going into Saturday night's schedule.
The Penguins and Red Wings can see just how unpredictable things are in the NHL's salary cap era by the way things are shaping up in their respective conferences.
In the Western race for a spot in the postseason, seven teams had between 56 and 61 points through Saturday, with Detroit one of two sitting at 61. The other was Nashville, which did not make the playoffs last season.
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Among the teams above the Red Wings in the standings are Phoenix, a perennial also-ran now strongly contending for home ice when the playoffs begin, and Colorado, which finished last in the West last season.
"I think that's a credit to where our league's at," Penguins veteran winger Bill Guerin said Saturday after practice at Southpointe. "There's so much parity in the league nowadays. I know Detroit's been riddled with injury problems. We were, too, [primarily in November] and it had an effect on us. The margin for error is not great. You have to be on every day. If you're not, you're going to find yourself in trouble."
The Penguins for a long time were holding firm to one of the top four spots in the East, where a beast of a race is unfolding with eight teams clustered around the playoff cutoff with between 54 and 56 points going into Saturday night.
Now, resurgent Ottawa is steaming from behind toward the fourth-place Penguins and even Atlanta, which has missed the playoffs in all but one of its seasons, appears to be a threat. On the flip side, defending conference champion Boston is among those wrestling for a playoff berth, and 2009 playoff conference finalist Carolina was last through Saturday.
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"Really, we're not that far ahead of some of those guys," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "You have one bad week, and you step right back to being there with them."
Orpik recalled last season, when the Penguins were struggling to establish themselves as a playoff team about this time. They took off after Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien, but even an 18-3-4 record after that couldn't catapult them too high because other playoff-bound teams were cruising down the stretch drive.
"Even when we were winning a lot, it seemed like we weren't moving up at all," Orpik said.
Detroit's string of playoff appearances sits at 18, the longest in major sports, and it is in jeopardy of not making it to 19.
"It's interesting," Penguins center Sidney Crosby said of the ups and downs in the standings, "but if you really look into it, you'll see there's a lot of different factors, injuries being a big one. It shows the strength of the league, but at the same time some of those teams just run into bad luck.
"That's a perfect example -- you miss one or two guys and the league is that strong that you can see it really hurts teams. There's not much room to slip up or lose an edge."
The Red Wings are expected to be without key forwards Tomas Holmstrom and Johnan Franzen today, although they are expected back from injury soon. Defenseman Jason Williams returned Friday from a broken leg and scored in an important 4-2 win against Nashville.
That's unfamiliar territory for Detroit -- needing an important win against Nashville in late January.
Guerin can remember when the haves and have-nots were more clearly defined.
"You knew who was going to be in and out basically, although the last spot was kind of a dogfight," he said. "But you had teams with $80 million payrolls, and you had teams with $25 million payrolls, and there was a big difference. Now, more than ever, that's why we play the games -- to figure it out. You can't buy anything."
The Penguins, who have one-third of their regular season remaining, are 7-5 in their past 12 games and have not been able to get on a roll since they won five games in a row in mid-December. Detroit is 2-4-1 in its past seven games.
"We and they are both looking to move in the right direction," Penguins winger Mike Rupp said. "We've been winning one, losing one, kind of going back and forth for a while.
"I think we need to try and start stringing [wins] together."
The way the league rolls these days, it couldn't hurt.