Thursday, January 12, 2017

Eastern Conference Teams That Can Dethrone The Pens In 2017!

The Pittsburgh Penguins are out for a second-straight Stanley Cup later this year, and their third overall in the Sidney Crosby-era. For good measure, the franchise is looking to make it five Stanley Cups overall, which would tie them (With Edmonton) for most Stanley Cups won by a team that joined the NHL from 1967 on.

But not so fast.

Are there teams out there that can beat Pittsburgh that play in their very conference? How about division? "Yes sir!" says I!

Now, a disclaimer: I think the Penguins are a great team! I watched last year's playoffs. They had depth, they had coaching, they had spectacular goaltending. And it continues on this season. But last year was 2015/16. This season is 2016/17, the 100th anniversary of the National Hockey League's inaugural campaign. A year makes a huge difference.

Okay, where to start?

How about Washington? The Pens have a history with them. Of beating them. All the time in the playoffs with the exception of 1994 (Yes, #68 was on that Pittsburgh team). The Caps, though, sure gave the Penguins all they could handle last year. They've got Braden Holtby, brilliant even in defeat in the 2016 playoffs. They've got a great coach in Barry Trotz. Oh, they've also got the latest member of the 1,000 point club, Alex Ovechkin. And he's hungry for a Stanley Cup. He'd love to leave Sidney Crosby behind on his way to one, for sure.

I think this can definitly happen. Of all the scenarios I present, this has to be the most likely. Sure, they may not meet, but if they do, don't you think Washington is due? A win by the Capitals over the Penguins in the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs would take the Ovie/Sid rivalry to new heights. Imagine, Crosby, losing to Ovechkin, and then Ovie winning the Stanley Cup later? The Stanley Cup counter would officially start with Alex having one to his name and Sid two himself. "Who will end up with more?" everyone will ask. This needs to be an annual playoff matchup. So much great history here, predating Sidney and Alexander.

How about Columbus?

The surprise team coached by John Tortorella? Well, he won a Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay (More on them, later) back in 2004, and is doing wonders this year with the Blue Jackets. That 16-game winning streak earlier? Just plain awesome! Did you know Columbus is third in the NHL in goals for with 135 (In 40 games)? They have some serious firepower. And they've got a good goalie named Sergei Bobrovsky. This team took Pittsburgh to six games back in 2014, and have matured much since. Experience is a bit against them as they've missed the playoffs the last two seasons, but they could very well surprise the Pens. This could all be smoke in mirrors as the saying goes. Columbus might be overachieving for all we know. The playoffs will tell.

The Rangers have twice beaten the Pens in the playoffs, and are 2-2 against them in the playoffs from 2007/08 on. They've got Henrik Lundqvist in goal, and it doesn't matter what his numbers are (Well, he's 18-9-1, 2.55, .912 in 29 games) he always on his game in the spring. He can get into the shooters' heads. Even Crosby. Look out for the Rangers, Pens!

Philadelphia is a bit of a long shot, but these teams had a memorable matchup back in 2012. Philly came out on top in six games in the first round, but the team doesn't appear to be dangerous to Pittsburgh, yet. The Flyers might peak when they see the Penguins in the playoffs.

So that's it for the Metropolitan division. How about the Atlantic? Montreal has injuries, but Carey Price isn't one of them. Doesn't he get in the shooters' heads? You bet. The Habs are 26-10-6 after 42 games this year, tops in the Atlantic division. They've been scoring a-plenty lately, but Price, he's sort of fallen off his previous seasons' performance, eh? That could be a concern if these two teams meet in the postseason. I'm not sure the Habs can match the Penguins in a high-scoring series. Price is 7-3-3 in his last 13 games, but his save percentage has been just .901 during that span, well below his .931 S% from 2013/14 through last season. Carey will be the deciding factor, and he needs to regain his form from earlier in the season and World Cup.

Ottawa has been a surprise this season, but not on the Columbus-scale. Their dealing with the loss of Craig Anderson, at least for now. He's a big-game goalie, and his save percentage in the playoffs is just a shade under Braden Holby's .938. Anderson is .933, and he can steal you a series in the postseason. Erik Karlsson is great, nothing more needs to be said. Clark McArthur is dealing with concussion issues. Ottawa is sort of doing things the hard way. Not much offence. They'll need some if they are going to beat Pittsburgh. But the Sens they've played just 39 games, and Mike Condon has done a good job filling in for Craig Anderson. He won't be the guy they turn to come playoff time. If this team can string together some wins, they could challenge Montreal for first in the Atlantic. They currently trail by 12 points, but have 3 games in hand. Boston is actually second but has played 44 games.

The Bruins hopes rest with goalie Tukka Rask. Patrice Bergeron (Who's having an off-year) and Patrice Bergeron are the two big gunners for Boston. They swept Pittsburgh four seasons ago in the playoffs, but that is ancient history in hockey time. They need to find others to pick up the scoring slack, although David Pastrnak has done an admirable job (31 points in 37 games). They aren't even distancing themselves from some of the bottom teams in the Eastern Conference. The team has eight players 30 years or over. Their time may be running out.

I'm not sold on Toronto making the playoffs just yet, so there is no point in speculating how they might fair vs. Pittsburgh in April. We'll cross that bridge when we get to it. The two Florida teams are interesting matchups for Pittsburgh. Tampa Bay gave 'em all they could handle last year, bowing out only 2-1 in game seven in the Conference Finals. This year, the injury bug (Most notably, Steven Stamkos) has hit them. But the Lighting are just six points back of the last wild card spot. If they get in and are healthy, they can beat Pittsburgh, and any team for that matter. This team went all the way to game six of the Stanley Cup Finals in 2015, don't forget. Their goalie, Ben Bishop has been excellent the last two playoff years (21-13, 2.09, .927). Florida is three games over .500, but also currently out of the playoff picture. They can get in, but I'd like the Lightning's chances better than the Panthers' chances.

Carolina has been hot lately, beating Columbus, but it's too early to tell for them. Their backup goalie, Eddie Lack is out with a concussion, so the team is short a quality backup. The team sits with 45 points, 3 back of Philadelphia for the last wild card spot (The Hurricanes have two games in hand). But they are 12 points back of the New York Rangers for the first wild card spot (And fourth place in the Metropolitan). This team has some work to do.

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