After the Pens' win over Montreal on Wednesday night, Mike Lange made an interesting observation on the postgame show. He noted that if the Pens had lost that game, they would have been only 5 points ahead of the #8 seed in the Eastern Conference. That was unthinkable only 2 weeks ago for a team on a long winning streak and briefly atop the NHL standings. But it got me thinking. Sometimes at GTOG we get so involved in the Pens that we don't step back and check in on what else is going on in the East.
What did I learn? First, the East is no cakewalk. Second, reader P.Co passed along this interesting site, which ranks the Eastern Conference teams by strength of schedule for games played and games remaining. According to that site, the Pens have played the second hardest schedule in the East so far, but have the easiest remaining schedule (probably because of 4 remaining games against both the Islanders and Devils).
In 2008, the Pens steamrolled through the Eastern Conference playoffs and in 2009, the Pens were only pushed to the brink by the Capitals in the second round, but otherwise had no trouble (Evgeni Malkin is still wanted for first-degree felony battery in North Carolina). But this year? There will be no waltzing through the playoffs. Quick observations on the current Top 8 and everyone else.
1. Philadelphia [59 points in 43 games] - As much as it pains me to say this, from top-to-bottom, the Flyers are the deepest team in the East. Unfortunately for them, their goaltending is even below the bottom. If you are being suckered into believing that Brian Boucher is any good, just watch the highlights of last night's Flyers-Bruins game.
2. Tampa Bay [57 points in 44 games] - Probably the most surprising team in the standings, not because they are in the playoff field, but because they are ahead of Washington. The only reason they would scare me in the playoffs is that Crosby sustains all of his injuries against them.
3. Boston [55 points in 43 games] - They may be just a notch below the Flyers in terms of roster depth, especially after the larceny of Nathan Horton. They may not be the favorite, but they will be an extremely tough out for any team. And, do you really want to have to read articles about Chara shutting down Crosby in the playoffs? Me neither.
4. Pittsburgh [58 points in 45 games] - The #4 seed is not a bad thing, unless it means a first round matchup with the Capitals. The Caps may be disappointing (when compared with their pace of last season), but they show up for games against the Pens. I'd take the Pens (surprise), but who needs the sideshow.
5. Washington [55 points in 44 games] - In his midseason awards column, which he apparently copy-pasted from 2008, Pierre Lebrun excreted on any credibility he had left by tossing Bruce Boudreau's name in his paragraph about candidates for the Jack Adams award. The Caps are a 4 game losing streak from 9th place. But they're also a 4 game winning streak from 1st place.
6. New York Rangers [55 points in 45 games] - This year's under-the-radar team in the East. Nothing on their roster really stands out and they rely too heavily on Lundqvist in a lot of games, but they're a legit playoff team. The Pens should match up well with them, but if you are looking for a #6 or #7 seed to handle some dirty work in round 1 by taking out the Caps, Bruins or Flyers, then be prepared to root for the Rangers.
7. Montreal [51 points in 44 games] - An underwhelming record and in danger of not making the playoffs at all doesn't change the fact that I do not want to see them in the playoffs.
8. Atlanta [51 points in 45 games] - A nice story and a team we are rooting for just based on the Kovalchuk karma. But can they really win a playoff series? This is why you want the Pens to win the conference.