There still is much to be settled between now and the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs April 30. The makeup of most of the field in both conferences, for starters. But even as much of the league battles to get into the tournament, then to secure the highest seed possible, the Penguins are in a fairly well-defined position.
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They will be no worse than the No. 2 seed in the East, which guarantees their first-round opponent will be either the No. 7 seed, should the Penguins finish behind the eventual Northeast Division winner, or the No. 8, if the Penguins hold on to the top spot in the conference.
That's what a 15-game winning streak will do for a team, especially in a 48-game season.
And if they're lucky enough to have their lineup intact, or reasonably close to it, the Penguins should be on just about everyone's short list of Stanley Cup favorites. After all, adding Sidney Crosby, James Neal and Paul Martin, or any combination thereof, as the postseason approaches would upgrade any lineup.
But the Penguins surely realize, more than most teams, that great expectations and a high seed come with no assurance of success. They have been jettisoned from the playoffs by lower-seeded opponents in three consecutive springs, the last two times in the first round.
Consequently, it's unlikely that they will take whoever they face in the opening round lightly, and really, there's no reason they should. Here's at look at why every prospective Round 1 opponent (as of this weekend) is capable of giving them a serious scare. Or worse.
The good news for the Penguins is that the Capitals look like a pretty good bet to win the Southeast Division, unless their late-season surge mutates into a full-fledged pratfall. A Southeast title would come with the No. 3 seed, and that would preclude a first-round meeting with the Penguins. The impetus for the Capitals' revival has been winger Alex Ovechkin, who has been so hot lately that he's a threat to spontaneously combust, and who usually does some of his best work against the Penguins. Washington could be a very tough out if the Penguins run into them at some point.
The Maple Leafs generally give the Penguins a tough time, and that's not going to change now that they've matured into a playoff-caliber club. Toronto is unproven in the postseason, having last qualified in 2004, but Randy Carlyle-coached teams generally aren't much fun to go against.
The Senators managed to stay competitive while playing much of the season without three of their top talents -- center Jason Spezza, goalie Craig Anderson and defenseman Erik Karlsson. Ottawa finally began to skid recently, losing five in a row, but getting its lineup back together, for the most part, could provide the impetus for another good run. Daniel Alfredsson has made life miserable for the Penguins more than a few times over the course of his career, too.
New York Islanders
The Penguins have faced New York in three playoffs series, all of which have ended in soul-crushing disappointments for the Penguins. They blew a 3-0 lead in 1975, were a late-game letdown from pulling off an epic upset of the two-time Stanley Cup-winning Islanders in 1982, then had their own run of Cups cut off at two by New York in 1993. Eddie Westfall, John Tonelli and David Volek wouldn't participate in any Penguins-Islanders meeting this spring, but the spirits of what they did to the Penguins in playoffs past undoubtedly would hang over the series.
New York Rangers
Great goaltending usually is what makes upsets possible -- Montreal's Jaroslav Halak made that point to the Penguins in 2010, and Dwayne Roloson of Tampa Bay reminded them of it a year later -- and Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers is the kind of talent who could alter the course of a series single-handedly. Offensively challenged as New York is, guys like Ryan Callahan have a knack for producing at key times, and Rick Nash can be a veritable force of nature when his game is in synch.
The Jets are enigmatic and unpredictable, but big-time talents like Evander Kane and Dustin Byfuglien could make any best-of-seven difficult, and good things seem to happen to teams that have Andrew Ladd, the Jets' captain, as a member. Besides, who wants to deal with hockey weather in May?
Seriously, is any team truly eager to have to win four games from Martin Brodeur, playing behind a club that overachieved its way to the Stanley Cup final a year ago? If so, why?
The Week Ahead
Wednesday: vs. Montreal ... The Penguins own a couple of one-goal victories against the Canadiens, but nothing has come easy against them since coach of the year candidate Michel Therrien took over behind Montreal's bench.
Friday: at Boston ... Many see the Bruins as the greatest threat to the Penguins' chances of making it out of the East this spring. Considering how good the Bruins can look when their game is in synch, it's hard to argue.
Saturday: vs. Buffalo ... The last time the Sabres ventured into Consol Energy Center, they ended the Penguins' 15-game winning streak. Presumably, the home team hasn't forgotten.