Penguins 4th in PHN Stanley Cup Rankings: Eastern Conference Top 8
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Penguins 4th in PHN Stanley Cup Rankings: Eastern Conference Top 8

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Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup

Instead of a power ranking list in the bye week, let’s look at what really matters, the Stanley Cup. The regular seasons are nice. President’s trophies are cute, but they don’t compare to the real hardware. Just ask the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins about regular-season honors set against the joy of winning Lord Stanley’s prize.

There are a few recent power rankings done by reputable sources. The Penguins are consistently ranked fifth in the Eastern Conference behind the talented Atlantic Division teams and the Washington Capitals.

The Penguins have the third-best record in the Eastern Conference and fourth-best in the league. They’re four points behind Washington for the top spot and four points ahead of the New York Islanders for fifth.

The Penguins’ success despite a crushing number of injuries is a primary reason head coach Mike Sullivan won voting by the Professional Hockey Writers Association as the mid-season favorite for the Jack Adams Award.

Mid-Season Eastern Conference Stanley Cup Rankings

8: Toronto Maple Leafs

Toronto’s talent and potential but lack of success make them a pejorative favorite to win the Eastern Conference. Questions about leadership and a recent clunker in Florida which new head coach Sheldon Keefe called, “immature,” cast doubt on the skilled team’s ability to pay off in crunch time.

A team with John Tavares and Auston Matthews at the top of their depth chart will be a threat in any series. Goalie Frederik Andersen has been a playoff dynamo but has played more than seven games only once. In the Toronto Round One Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins, Andersen had a .922 save percentage.

Andersen is tough to beat in April, but the rest of the crew hasn’t proven an aptitude for spring hockey. Toronto is currently outside of the playoff seedings which only adds to our distrust of their potential.

7. Florida Panthers

The talented but big-game inexperienced crew has been a perennial sexy pick in the preseason but golfers during the NHL postseason. Things may be a little different this season with head coach Joel Quenneville who guided the Chicago Blackhawks to three Stanley Cups in the past decade.

Up front, Florida is loaded with offensive possibilities. Jonathan Huberdeau and Alexandar Barkov anchor the top line. Vincent Trocheck centers the second line, and sniper Mike Hoffman adds scoring on the third line.

Florida will need better goaltending from big-time free agent get Sergei Bobrovsky, who has an abysmal .898 save percentage after 37 appearances, and a 3.24 GAA. Florida also has an offensive-minded defense but not much sandpaper. Riley Stillman and Anton Stralman are the second pairing but statistically rank in the bottom third among No. 2 pairs, according to Corsica Hockey.

6. Carolina Hurricanes

There’s just something unique and special about the group. On paper, they are certainly not the equal of Toronto, Tampa, or a healthy Pittsburgh, but they were the last team standing between Boston and the Stanley Cup last season.

Sebastien Aho is the superstar hockey fans haven’t seen. Jordan Staal is a rock-solid pivot. 2018 first-round pick (2nd overall) Andrei Svechnikov is only getting better, too. Svechnikov has 45 points (19g, 26a) in 50 games.

Add a balanced defense with Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, and perhaps Dougie Hamilton (broken leg), Carolina is the real deal. Their biggest playoff question mark is in net. Petr Mrazek has .905 save percentage and 2.59 GAA. He is the weak link.

Oh, and captain Justin Williams just returned from semi-retirement. He re-signed and scored two goals in his first game last week.

5. New York Islanders

Carolina promptly broomed New York in Round Two, after New York steamrolled the Pittsburgh Penguins in Round One last season. The relentlessly structured, well-coached team without a full-time barn to call home, has the fifth-best record in the NHL. Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss are more than adequate in the net. Varlamov has a .915 save percentage, and Greiss is 14-7-1 with a .925 save percentage.

Mathew Barzal leads a heavy and talented top line with Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle. The unheralded New York second line is the envy of many with Brock Nelson in the middle, Anthony Beauvillier, and Josh Bailey.

Derick Brassard has settled into a third-line center role, though at times has also played LW (Penguins fans feel free to groan). Brassard has 24 points (8g, 16a) in 49 games.

New York is solid, top to bottom. They will be an impossible out for any team which doesn’t match their structure.

4. Tampa Bay Lightning

Tampa Bay was languishing well back of the Wild-Card seeds and sputtering for the first couple months of the season. There was talk head coach Jon Cooper would be ex-coach, Jon Cooper. Tampa has since surged to second place in the deeply talented Atlantic Division. They’ve won eight of their last 10 and “only” trail Boston by eight points.

Tampa Bay has the No. 2 ranked top line in hockey, centered by Brayden Point, with Steve Stamkos on the left-wing and Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov on the right.

Tampa Bay can also grind with Stanley Cup winner Patrick Maroon on their third line with Cedric Paquette and Alex Killorn. This is the team which should have a Stanley Cup banner, maybe two since 2015 but has not won since 2004. Last season, they cut through the NHL regular season like a buzzsaw but let up late in the season and never found their stride. Underdog Columbus Blue Jackets swept them in Round One.

They won’t make the same mistakes again.

3. Pittsburgh Penguins

We’ve placed the Penguins higher on the list, not because this site is based in Pittsburgh but because we’re bullish in the future of the healthy roster. The Penguins have the fourth-best record in the NHL, and they’ve done so mostly without Sidney Crosby. Evgeni Malkin has been unstoppable since he, too, returned from injury in November.

Crosby and Malkin are each scoring more than a point per game, which gives the Penguins two very dangerous lines. The Penguins will need an additional scoring winger to fill the hole left by Jake Guentzel’s season-ending shoulder surgery but they’re still winning games.

The Penguins have not one, but two starting goalies. If 2016 and 2017 taught us anything, it is that goalie Matt Murray is even better with competition. The Penguins big-game goalie is rounding into form, some fan mockery notwithstanding. 

The Pittsburgh Penguins have overachieved without their top talent. Now, we’ll soon find out how good they’ll be with a healthy-ish roster and some tinkering by horsetrader GM Jim Rutherford.

2. Boston Bruins

They’re tired. They’re weary. They also lead the Atlantic Division by eight points and are the reigning Eastern Conference champ. Boston is beset by question marks and handwringing, but they’re also one of the best teams in the league. Goalie Tuukka Rask was concussed last week, but he was selected as an All-Star.

Boston is deep, and they have the best line in hockey with Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and NHL leading goal scorer David Pastrnak. The line is unstoppable even when opponents focus on it.

On defense, they’re solid and will get better when the games get bigger. Torey Krug has not been his best self yet. Boston is plagued by questions because they’re so good, but haven’t always performed up to their potential in the first half of the season. Yet they still have the second-best record in the East. That should scare a lot of teams.

1. Washington Capitals

Like the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Washington Capitals window will be closing sooner than later. Nick Backstrom, 32, just signed a five-year deal, and Alex Ovechkin is chasing Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goals scored record.

Washington is deep. They’re talented. They, too, have two starting goalies with Braden Holtby and the future starter Ilya Samsonov. However, one fly in the ointment has been Holtby’s contract, which expires after this season. Like Matt Murray, Holtby has struggled this season, and his save percentage is sub-.900. The rookie Samsonov, like Tristan Jarry in Pittsburgh, has more than picked up the slack. He is 15-2-1 with a .927 save percentage and 2.06 GAA.

Ovechkin-Backstrom-Tom Wilson is a fearsome top line. Vrana-Kuznetsov-Oshie is also one of the best second lines in hockey with skill, grit, and speed.

Since Washington finally got over the hump in 2018, they know what it takes to win. Washington was sick about their missed opportunity last season as they let up against Carolina in Round One.

The Eastern Conference has four, maybe six teams currently worthy of the Stanley Cup. The Penguins are the underdogs of the bunch, for now, but their first-half can’t be explained away. They are in the group, and with a hungry Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, their shortcomings on paper are quickly erased.

The next six months should be fun.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now owner, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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