Originally posted on Red Light District Hockey  |  Last updated 3/28/12

Most of the hockey world would agree that, as of now, the Pittsburgh Penguins are the team to beat with the playoffs a mere two weeks away. So I pose this question: Will anyone get in the Penguins’ way of the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup title?

There hasn’t been a better team in the NHL in the second half than the Penguins. Despite Tuesday’s loss to the lottery-bound New York Islanders, Dan Bylsma’s team is 26-6-2 since mid-January. They have out-scored opponents by a score of 132-88 en route to this dominant 34-game stretch.

Perhaps what has stood out the most in these last 34 games is the fact that Sidney Crosby remained sidelined (until Mar. 15) and top blue-liner Kris Letang was in-and-out of the lineup. Granted, the Penguins have grown accustomed to playing without key players over the last couple years. But to maintain this level of play, thanks in large part to Evgeni Malkin’s shoulders, has been impressive.

If they continue on this pace in their final six games, they could very well beat out the Rangers for the Eastern Conference’s top seed. If not, Malkin and company will be just as dangerous seeded fourth.

Now with Crosby and Letang healthy and inserted into the already-explosive lineup, the Penguins are locked and loaded for a serious run at Lord Stanley. Will anyone stop them? Let’s go step-by-step.

The Penguins will likely play one of three teams in the first round: Philadelphia, Buffalo, or Washington.

Obviously, if they end up in fourth, the Flyers could pose a problem for the Penguins. The Flyers are a good road team, have a solid defensive structure and may be the one team in the conference that could even come close to matching Pittsburgh’s firepower up front. It could be the Penguins’ toughest matchup in the East. (If the Penguins claim the top seed, they’d plow through the Sabres or Capitals.)

Assuming the Penguins get through round one, they are looking at three other opponents: New York, Boston, or New Jersey.

They have New Jersey beat in every area, so Peter DeBoer’s club wouldn’t pose much of a threat in a seven-game series. The Rangers are great defensively and have the great equalizer, Henrik Lundqvist, on their side. Pittsburgh’s offense would be too much in the end, though. The defending champs would be an interesting matchup for the Pens – if they are firing on all cylinders, not sputtering like they have since mid-season.

If the Penguins get all the way to the Cup final, I don’t see anyone in the West that would be able to halt that unstoppable train. Not St. Louis. Not Vancouver. Not Detroit.

On paper they are the best team in the league. Luckily, the playoffs aren’t played on paper. That said, it’s hard seeing anyone beating these Penguins in a playoff series.

When the Penguins won the Cup in 2009 they barnstormed their way into the playoffs via an 18-3-3 stretch in their final 24 games, and that momentum carried over. They stubbed their toe down the stretch in 2010, while 2011 deserves an asterisk with Crosby and Malkin both out of the lineup.

Are this year’s Penguins better than they were in 2009? It’s hard not to say yes. Fleury is a more consistent goaltender, the defense is deeper and the offense is scarier. Moreover, they actually have an effective power play now. Their special teams combine for a 107.3 percentage – tops in the NHL. In 2009 the special teams executed at a combined 99.9 percent rate.

You could also make an argument that the Penguins didn’t have a pure goal-scoring threat like James Neal three years ago. Back then, Crosby and Malkin were the only ones to score more than 25 goals. Neal has scored 37 goals this season and is second in the NHL in shots. Not to mention, Malkin leads the NHL in shots and has 46 goals of his own.

The playoffs aren’t played on paper. But this Penguins team, on paper and on the ice, is pretty damn good.

Photo credit: Getty Images
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