On the Penguins: Weighing pros, cons of top seed
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Several weeks ago, the Penguins went public with their intention of overtaking the New York Rangers to finish first in the Eastern Conference.
At the time, it didn't seem like a terribly realistic objective.
Not when they were facing a double-digit deficit in points. Not when the Rangers had shown no sign of sputtering, let alone sliding back toward the rest of the Eastern pack.
Well, the regular season is entering its final 14 days, and ownership of the conference's top seed has not been established.
And might not be for a while.
The Penguins' desire to hurdle New York is easy to understand, and not only because athletes who make it to this level tend to be ultra-competitive.
For starters, winning the East would guarantee them home-ice advantage for at least the first three rounds of the playoffs. (Not that having a Game 7 at Consol Energy Center necessarily would be a major plus for the Penguins. They are 2-6 in those at home, 5-0 on the road).
What's more, it would eliminate any possibility of a first-round matchup against the Philadelphia Flyers, with whom they would be paired if the teams end up fourth and fifth.
They might well survive a series with the Flyers, but there's a good chance that players from whichever club moved on would do so in matching body casts.
While the benefits of avoiding an early collision with Philadelphia are obvious, the No. 1 seed wouldn't assure the Penguins of an opening-round series that would be no more than a best-of-seven formality.
They got a first-hand look at one possible No. 8 seed, Ottawa, Saturday night, and the other two top candidates to seize the final Eastern playoff spot, Washington and Buffalo, are surging, not stumbling, down the stretch.
The Sabres, who were 14th as recently as Feb. 17, entered their game against Minnesota Saturday on an 12-2-4 roll. Much of the credit for that belongs to goaltender Ryan Miller, who has ratcheted his game back up to its customary level and took a 12-1-3 run into the Wild game.
The Sabres also have been getting steady offensive production from the likes of Tyler Ennis, Drew Stafford and rookie Marcus Foligno and have, in general, been performing the way they had been expected to before the season.
Washington, meanwhile, is 5-2-2 in its past nine, despite a deflating, 4-3 loss against Winnipeg Friday.
Given the ferocity of their rivalry with the Penguins, pulling off an opening-round upset would take a lot -- or maybe all -- of the sting out of what has been an exasperating season for the Capitals, who started 7-0.
Washington has played nearly half a season without Nicklas Backstrom, one of the NHL's finest centers, because of a concussion. Backstrom, though, appears to be progressing. and it seems conceivable that he could get clearance to resume playing in the not-too-distant future.
While Backstrom's return remains somewhat uncertain, it appears that Capitals left winger Alex Ovechkin already is back.
Ovechkin didn't have any major medical issues, but spent much of the winter searching for his goal-scoring touch. Long one of the game's most-feared shooters, he got just four goals during one 20-game stretch, and rarely was the difference-maker he had been in the past.
Ovechkin, though, has nine goals in his past nine games and 23 in his past 35.
If Ovechkin's game truly is back in synch -- and especially if Backstrom is back on active duty -- the Capitals will have the potential to be more of a force during the playoffs than they have been for most of the regular season.
First Published March 25, 2012 12:00 am