Get excited, the playoffs are right around the corner. In just over a month, the NHL playoffs will start up and the chase for the Cup will begin once again. And right now, there is a tier at the top of the standings that is playing at another level compared to the rest of the league. In the Eastern Conference, the Canadiens and Penguins have a step on every one else, while the Ducks and Blackhawks are a lock on top of the West. Chances are, one of the four will be Stanley Cup Champions, but the question is who? For part one of the series, let’s take a look at things on the Eastern front.
Photo Credit: Kevin Hoffman – US PRESSWIRE
As usual, Pittsburgh is leading the pack in the East as the playoffs approach. Currently riding an 11-game winning streak, the Pens are clicking on all cylinders. Crosby is a sure fire MVP finalist, casually putting up 39 assists in just 32 games. Equally impressive is the players around him. Neither Crosby or Malkin are among the top three goal scorers on the team as Neal, Kunitz, and Dupuis all have double-digit goal totals. All of their talent culminates in the man advantage giving them the best power play attack in the league. When Malkin heats up and pitches in, the NHL has to watch out.
On the back end, the defense is rock solid. Five starters boast a positive plus-minus and between Kris Letang and Paul Martin the Penguins provide enough offensive support to get the puck into the hands of their goal scorers. When it comes to goalies, coach Dan Bylsma loves the production from back up Thomas Vokoun, who shoulders roughly a third of the games. Starter Marc Andre Fleury has been good enough posting a 2.38 goals against average with a .912 save percentage. More importantly, Flowers will be fresh come April when Sid the Kid and the rest of the Pens make a push to add another banner to the rafters.
Photo Credit: Allen McInnis, The Gazette
The Habs have quietly put together a strong 2013 campaign with a .750 winning percentage. Their numbers aren’t sexy, but they continue to find ways to get the job done. When they light up the scoreboard, they win by committee. 13 players have double-digit point totals including the defensive pairing of Marcov and Subban having 20 and 22 respectively. Thomas Plekanec, their leading goal scorer only has 12 goals. However, every player that has played more than 10 games has at least one. Depth is their strong suit so grinding out playoff games is no issue.
Goaltending has been phenomenal for Montreal. Price and Budaj both sport goals against averages under 2.50 and save percentages over .900. Although Price starts the majority of the games, there should be no lack of confidence in Budaj as he has grabbed a point in five of his six starts. They don’t have the same star power of others front runners, but no one in the NHL wants to play in the Bell Centre come playoff time.
Verdict: Pittsburgh Penguins
Photo Credit: AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Graham Hughes
When it comes down to it, there’s too much the Penguins can throw at a team offensively to not win. Most of the players have already won the Cup with a very similar team, while the Canadiens haven’t made a cup final since 1993. Playoff hockey is meant for their storied franchise, but they will have to at least wait another year to come out of the East on top.