On the Penguins: Red Wings or Blue Jackets?

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Professional curiosity aside, the Penguins wouldn't seem to have much reason to be scoreboard-watching as the regular season enters its final eight days.

It's been obvious for months that they'd end up with the No. 1 or 2 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, and it's been a couple of weeks since Boston's late-season surge removed any real suspense about which of those clubs would finish on top.

Still, the Penguins might be paying at least a little attention to what's going on in other cities in coming days. Especially the ones whose teams could face them in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

As the Metropolitan Division champion and presumed No. 2 seed in the East, the Penguins would open the playoffs with a best-of-seven against the highest-ranked of the conference's two wild-card qualifiers. (Boston, as the East's top seed, will meet the other wild card.)

Although a handful of teams remain in contention for those wild-card slots, Detroit and Columbus have held them most of the time lately.

But just because the Red Wings and Blue Jackets have been pretty even in the standings doesn't mean they would be relatively equal threats to defeat the Penguins in the first round.

Columbus is a franchise clearly on the upswing, with star-in-the-making Ryan Johansen headlining a collection of promising young players that is complemented by some solid veterans.

But the Blue Jackets have no history of playoff success -- they were swept by the Red Wings in 2009, in the only playoff series in team history -- and haven't fared very well against the Penguins, either, losing all five games to them in 2013-14.

That doesn't mean a first-round matchup with Columbus would amount to a best-of-seven bye for the Penguins -- the Blue Jackets are well-coached and willing to compete, as evidenced by their 2-0 victory in Philadelphia lsat Thursday -- but the Penguins have established themselves as the superior club. And both teams surely realize it.

How the Penguins compare to the Red Wings, who are poised to make the playoffs for the 23rd consecutive season, isn't so clear. In part because neither club has actually looked like itself for much of this season.

The Penguins, of course, lead the NHL in man-games lost to injury and illness, and have had to get by without impact players like Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Pascal Dupuis, James Neal, Paul Martin and Beau Bennett, among others, for extended periods.

At this point, indications are that, barring additional injuries -- and gee, what are the chances of someone associated with this club getting hurt? -- the Penguins reasonably can expect to have everyone except Dupuis and possibly Letang back by around the start of the playoffs.

Detroit hasn't lost as many man-games as the Penguins, but the Red Wings have had to get by without world-class talents like Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk for much of the winter.

Other valuable contributors, including right winger Johan Franzen and defenseman Jonathan Ericsson, also have been out for large chunks of time. During one stretch, the Red Wings were missing their top four centers.

Reports out of Detroit suggest that Zetterberg (back) likely will miss at least the start of the opening round, and that Ericsson (finger) is far from certain to be available for Game 1. Having to get by without either of them would be a serious setback for the Red Wings.

Still, Detroit has shown it can find capable replacements for big-time talents who get injured -- forward Gustav Nyquist, for example, has gone being a fairly promising prospect to a virtual folk hero since being promoted to the NHL -- and coach Mike Babcock has a documented knack for getting the most that his personnel has to give.

Mind you, these are not the Red Wings who used to be a dominant force in the NHL, and they wouldn't be even if their lineup was intact. (Happily for the rest of the league, Hall-of-Famer-in-waiting Nicklas Lidstrom had to retire eventually.)

Nonetheless, the Red Wings are completely capable of giving a higher-seeded opponent a severe scare over the course of a series. And perhaps even an early ticket to the off-season.

Which is why it will be understandable if the Penguins quietly root for Columbus when checking to see what's going on elsewhere in the league.

THE WEEK AHEAD

Today: at Colorado ... Turns out that 1-0 Avalanche victory at Consol Energy Center Oct. 21 wasn't an upset, after all. Colorado has won too often this season for there to be anything fluky about its success.

Wednesday: vs. Detroit ... As noted above, this might be a preview of the Penguins' first-round playoff series. Perhaps a good time to work on a strategy for limiting the damage Nyqvist can do.

Saturday: vs. Philadelphia ... It's possible the Flyers still will be fighting for their playoff seeding, so this game might not be as meaningless as it appears at first blush.


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