Although the Penguins likely couldn't avoid finishing first in the Metropolitan Division if they tried -- and there have been times of late when they appeared to be doing just that -- some of the teams below them are putting together strong late-season surges.
The New York Rangers won five in a row before losing Friday night at Calgary. Philadelphia went on a similar run a couple of weeks ago. Washington won four of five games immediately after being swept by the Penguins in a home-and-home series earlier this month.
Still, the Rangers and Flyers are the only Metropolitan clubs with a mathematical chance -- which is not to be confused with a realistic one -- of overtaking the Penguins for first place in the division, mostly because the Penguins started the season strong while most of their rivals stumbled.
"I think it was a surprise at the beginning of the season that those teams weren't winning as much," goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. "Now, seeing them play [well recently], that's more of what I expected."
Defenseman Brooks Orpik noted that New York spent the early weeks of this season on the road after bringing in a new coach, Alain Vigneault, before the season, and that the Flyers replaced Peter Laviolette with Craig Berube shortly after the season began.
"Both of those teams were learning new systems," he said.
Players on both seem to have gotten comfortable with what they've been taught, based on recent results.
"If you look at those lineups," Orpik said, "I don't think anyone's too surprised."
Union opinion split
Craig Adams, a Harvard graduate and the Penguins players representative during the lockout that wiped out a portion of the 2012-13 season, said he has mixed feelings about the attempt by football players at Northwestern to form a union.
"I think it depends on what their goal is," Adams said. "I know a lot of people have been talking about college athletes being paid. To be honest, I'm not sure where I stand on that.
"I could listen to arguments going either way. If you do get hurt playing a college sport, apparently it's up to the university whether or not if they want to take care of your surgery or rehab and things like that.
"I didn't know that. I don't think most people know that."
Adams said he can see both sides of the argument about whether college athletes should receive money from their school.
"I think you're a student," he said. "You're an amateur. You should stay that way. I certainly didn't have much spending money at school, but I had enough.
"A lot of these guys and girls maybe don't have anything. If they're bringing in a bunch of money, why shouldn't they maybe have a little spending money on the side?"
The Blackhawks have few, if any, significant flaws, but they apparently are somewhat vulnerable when a game stretches beyond the third period.
Seven of Chicago's games have been decided in overtime, and the Blackhawks have lost them all.
They fare a bit better in shootouts, going 5-8, but some of Chicago's most gifted forwards haven't had much luck in that setting, either. Injured right winger Patrick Kane, one of the NHL's better goal-scorers, has converted just 1 of 11 shootout opportunities, while Marian Hossa is 0 for 5 and Brandon Saad of Wexford is 0 for 3.
Strong finish key
The Penguins have been sputtering through their most difficult stretch this season, going 3-5-1 in their past nine games.
Despite -- or, perhaps, because of -- their recent struggles, Orpik said "it's imperative that we have a good finish," and cited the 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings as evidence of how late-season momentum can carry into the playoffs.
"They squeaked into the playoffs on the last day [of the regular season] the year they won [the Stanley Cup]," he said. "They played so hard their last 10 or 15 games just to get into the playoffs that I think it had a direct carryover to how they played in the playoffs.
"Obviously, I don't think that desperation level comes as natural when your backs aren't up against the wall.
"But it's not like we have a young team in here. We have guys who should be aware of how that translates over to the playoffs."
The Penguins had a scheduled day off Saturday. ... Neither team ends up on the wrong side of a blowout very often. Chicago is 18-4 in games decided by three or more goals, while the Penguins are 18-9.
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.