Found March 14, 2012 on Red Light District Hockey:
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There are currently four teams that have more points than the Pittsburgh Penguins. Don’t let the standings fool you. With Sidney Crosby returning to the lineup, the Penguins are undoubtedly the NHL’s team to beat.

The current winning streak the Penguins are on – nine games, by the way – is fascinating. Their level of competition hasn’t been great, but winning that many games in a row is tough no matter who you’re playing. It’s not like the Pens have been riding the coattails of Evgeni Malkin over the last nine games. Their role players have been getting the job done, which makes them even scarier with Crosby coming back Thursday.

Jordan Staal has been on fire ever since returning from a knee injury on Feb. 11. He has 17 points in 14 games since then, centering an effective line with Pascal Dupuis (five points in last three games) and Steve Sullivan (13 points in last 11 games). That’s not to say that their second line has been carrying the team. The top line has still been productive, and Malkin has been the best player on the ice most nights.

With Crosby out of the lineup, Malkin has turned into the best player in the world (again) – but can he continue at his torrid pace with Crosby back? That will be one of the more interesting things to watch as No. 87 returns.

Aside from the 2009 postseason, Malkin has historically been at his best when No. 87 has been sidelined due to injury. Further, Geno’s production has soared (60 points in 40 games) since Crosby suffered his second concussion back in December.

Crosby’s return has taken attention away from the fact that defenseman Kris Letang – sidelined with a concussion since Feb. 29 – is inching closer to getting back in the lineup, as well. The Penguins are 25-10-5 with a healthy Letang this season. When the Pens’ defense corps is healthy, it’s one of the best in the league – led by Letang.

So if Crosby and Letang stay healthy upon their return, how deep can this team go? All the way. Without those two game-changers, this Penguins team can challenge to come out of the East. With both Crosby and Letang, though, the potential is sky high.

With a healthy lineup, are the Penguins better than the Rangers? Outside of Henrik Lundqvist – the great equalizer – they are definitely better than the division-leading Blueshirts. Philadelphia could challenge them if Ilya Bryzgalov keeps up his current play into the playoffs, but no one else in the conference could beat the Pens at the top of their game.

A quick look at the West: Vancouver is well-built to beat anyone, but the Pens are better than St. Louis, Detroit and Nashville.

Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma has to like what he sees from his team right now, winning nine in a row in different forms and fashions. (Possessing a lethal power play compared to years past is gravy.) Adding Crosby and Letang to the arsenal this close to the playoffs just makes a second Stanley Cup in four years all the more realistic in the Steel City.

If anyone else wants to win the Cup, they will have to go through the Penguins.

Photo credit: Getty Images
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