The Pittsburgh Penguins are still the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference again this season as they’re the defending Stanley Cup Champions and are second in the Metropolitan division with 57 points and a 26-10-5 record. The Eastern Conference, most notably the Metropolitan division, has gotten a lot better this season and there are a few teams who can definitely challenge the Penguins to come out of the conference and go to the Stanley Cup Final. Here’s a look at the Pittsburgh Penguins biggest threats right now as we’re about halfway through the season.
The Capitals started out a bit sluggish this season as they were fighting for a wild card spot at time. It looks like they’ve found their game as they’ve now won eight in a row. They’re looking like the Capitals team from the regular season last year when they just steamrolled everyone and cruised to a Metropolitan division title.
Even though the Penguins beat them in the playoffs last year in six games, the Capitals are the biggest threat to the Penguins in the conference. Pittsburgh is a bit of a faster team, but the Capitals can skate with the Penguins which is something that not many teams in this league can do. They have so much offensive firepower, which of course starts with Alex Ovechkin, and they also have one of the top five best goaltenders in the world in Braden Holtby. Once a goalie gets hot in the playoffs, anything can happen.
Their power play is also one of the best in the league as it’s so hard to defend. Ovechkin is the best in the league at shooting one timers from his famous spot and then they have Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom dishing out sweet passes along with Niskanen quarterbacking it. Even though this is a team that hasn’t gotten past the second round in the Alex Ovechkin era, they’re still a very dangerous team and can definitely give the Penguins some problems if they run into them in the playoffs.
Columbus Blue Jackets
No one expected the Blue Jackets to be first in the league halfway through the season but after a 16-game winning streak, they’re right there. Many expected them to be one of the worst teams in the league this season but Cam Atkinson has had an amazing season where he has put up 20 goals and 40 points, and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is having another Vezina Trophy level season as he’s 26-6-2 with a .931 save percentage. John Tortorella has just done a magnificent job with this team.
When it comes to playing the Penguins, they already demolished them 7-1 during their winning streak but that was also when the Penguins didn’t have Kris Letang in the lineup, as he’s one of the most important individual players on that team. Columbus has a lot more scoring depth in their bottom six than they do last year which goes a long way into being a better team. It makes a huge difference when you substitute players like Gregory Campbell and Jared Boll with someone like Sam Gagner who has 14 goals this season. The Blue Jackets blueline is the area that the Penguins have a bigger advantage since they have better puck-moving defenseman than the Blue Jackets do. But Columbus can always go out during the trade deadline and bolster their blueline
Columbus proved they can skate with the Penguins, and even out skate them, in their 7-1 win last month. But we need to see how these teams play each other when both are fully healthy. They’ll definitely be a playoff team and it’ll be interesting to see if these teams meet again in the playoffs like they did a few seasons ago.
The Canadiens have been one of the best teams in the league this season and seem destined to run away with the Atlantic division as they have a seven-point lead on the Boston Bruins, which means the Penguins wouldn’t see this team until the Eastern Conference Final if both teams end up advancing. Montreal poses a couple of problems for the Penguins and the biggest of course is goaltender Carey Price. Price is the best goaltender in the world right now as hes 20-7-4 with a .922 save percentage and definitely a top choice for the Vezina Trophy. Playing him when he’s healthy in the playoffs would not be easy for Pittsburgh as he has the opportunity to steal any game if he’s playing at the top of his game.
Even though Montreal has been decimated by injuries all season long, Max Pacioretty and Shea Weber have both had outstanding seasons for them. Pacioretty started out a bit slow this year, but has found his form as he has put up 19 goals and 35 points and Weber has 10 goals and 28 points for them this season and is likely a Norris Trophy contender. The Canadiens play a bit of a different style then Pittsburgh does which could frustrate them when they try to get their speed game going. Seeing a Penguins-Canadiens series is a bit overdue as we would get to see Michel Therrien go up against his old team that he took to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008.
It’ll be interesting to see how the standings are at the end of the season and if the Penguins will have to go through all, or at least a couple, of these teams in the playoffs to try and repeat.