Dave Molinari on the Penguins: Looking ahead ... For Penguins, there are no favors


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There will be much discussion -- very little of it, most likely, inside the locker room -- in the next three weeks about the most favorable matchup the Penguins could have in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and how they should go about trying to get it.

Should they make winning the Eastern Conference, and thus assuring the home-ice advantage for three rounds, the highest possible priority?

If that doesn't happen, should they try to orchestrate a slide to sixth place, to set up a best-of-seven in the first round with the winner of the Southeast Division, easily the weakest in the conference?

But while there will be almost as many points of view as there will be potential opponents, the reality is that the only thing over which the Penguins have any control is how they fare in their final 11 games.

Win them all, which would propel them into the playoffs on a 13-0 roll, and they are guaranteed the No. 1 seed. Lose just a few, though, and they could tumble into the bottom half of the Eastern playoff field.

Of course, a case could be made that the whole issue is all but moot. That, aside from the obvious advantage of having a Game 7 in Round 1 on home ice by virtue of finishing in the top four, it really doesn't matter where the Penguins end up.

For while it's hard to imagine any team craving a series against the Penguins, with their core of exceptional talent and well-documented ability to deal with adversity, it's equally difficult to view any possible first-round series the Penguins might have as being little more than a best-of-seven bye.

There are good reasons for the Penguins to genuinely respect any club they might run into.

Consider the teams that, at least for the moment, occupy the other seven playoff slots in the East:

New Jersey

Martin Brodeur, below, has been the NHL's best big-game goalie for years and, after a so-so start this season, has looked a lot like the guy who ranks among the best ever at his position. The Devils' defensive corps is average and they have no true game-breakers up front, but thanks to the brilliance of Brodeur and New Jersey's disciplined adherence to coach Brent Sutter's system, those shortcomings usually don't matter much.

Ottawa

The Senators not only ran the Penguins out of the playoffs in five games last spring, but have had their number for most of this season, too. A few weeks back, when Ottawa wasn't playing well enough to take a point out of an intrasquad game, it beat the Penguins twice in eight days. And if the Penguins don't have nightmares about trying to contain the likes of Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson for two weeks, it's not because they shouldn't.

Carolina

The Hurricanes appear to be the best of a lackluster bunch in the Southeast, and they should be the only team from that division to get into the playoffs. Unfortunately for the Penguins, Carolina rarely looks ordinary when it faces them; it has not lost a season series to the Penguins since 1998-99. Hurricanes center Eric Staal (8 goals, 10 assists in 15 career games) seems to view punishing the Penguins as his personal calling, and goalie Cam Ward (7-3-1 lifetime) beat them in his first NHL start and hasn't let up since.

Montreal

The Canadiens have no significant flaws, with the possible exception of inexperienced goaltending. The catch there is that rookie Carey Price has looked like a worthy heir to the rich legacy of Georges Vezina, Patrick Roy and Ken Dryden in his appearances against the Penguins. Throw in the league's most efficient power play, the rejuvenated brilliance of Alex Kovalev and the misery defenseman Mike Komisarek could cause and, delightful as springtime in Montreal can be, the Penguins shouldn't necessarily be eager to visit anytime soon.

N.Y. Rangers

After threatening to give underachievement a bad name for much of the season, the Rangers have gotten into sync the past month or so and might be the hottest team in the league of late. They are one of the NHL's best five-on-five clubs, possess a diversified (if disappointing) offense and goalie Henrik Lundqvist is capable of all but winning a series singlehandedly. If it ever occurs to Jaromir Jagr that he is, well, Jaromir Jagr, he could become the force that fuels a nice playoff run.

Boston

TD Banknorth Garden, a name that rolls off the tongue like 60-grit sandpaper, isn't particularly intimidating, but you wouldn't know it from the Penguins' record there in recent years. They are 2-5-1 in their past eight visits and don't fare all that much better against the Bruins at Mellon Arena, going 2-2-2 in the past three seasons. Towering defenseman Zdeno Chara, who deserves more consideration for the Norris Trophy than he likely will get, can be a difference-maker at both ends of the ice.

Philadelphia

Never mind the Flyers' 4-1 record vs. the Penguins heading into their game at Mellon Arena this afternoon. The energy and emotion that would be spent (and possibly the blood spilled) in a Penguins-Flyers series likely would leave the survivor at a serious disadvantage heading into Round 2. Sure would make those final two meetings, which just happen to be the Penguins' last of the regular season, interesting, though.





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