Saturday, February 17, 2018

Saturday storylines: Be afraid of the Penguins

We’ve got 11 games on tap tonight, including six of the seven Canadian teams in action. With the races tightening and the trade deadline looming, it’s getting tense out there. So let’s try to keep things calm by starting with two teams that are pretty much already in the playoffs…

HNIC Game of the Night: Maple Leafs at Penguins

It’s officially time to be afraid of the Penguins again.

After two straight Stanley Cups, they were kind enough to give us a bit of a break early in the season. The Pens stumbled out of the gate, including an embarrassing 10-1 loss to the Blackhawks during the season’s first week, and never seemed quite right through the first few months. As late as the first week of January, they’d lost more games than they’d won. They were dipping in and out of a wild-card spot, and GM Jim Rutherford was reportedly ready to make major changes to try to save the season.

But while it didn’t seem like it at the time, a 4-0 win over the Islanders on Jan. 5 now looks like a turning point. They followed that by beating a red-hot Bruins team in overtime, then added wins over the Red Wings and Rangers. They’ve stayed hot ever since — they haven’t lost two straight since the end of December. In all, the Penguins are rolling to the tune of a 13-3-1 record during the stretch, blowing by the wild-card traffic jam and putting them within range of the Capitals for the Metro title.

And they’ve looked scary doing it, scoring five or more goals seven times and winning eight games by three goals or more. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are back to their old selves after slow starts, and Phil Kessel continues to rack up the points.

Maybe most frightening of all, they’re still not at their best. Matt Murray has been much better lately, but has still been inconsistent. If he were to heat up, the Penguins might start to look unbeatable. Then again, Murray tends to do his best work in the playoffs, and that’s where he and his team are headed. At this rate, they’ll be back among the favourites once they get there.

The Maple Leafs are headed to the post-season too, although their status as legitimate contenders is still in question. It’s been a weird season for Toronto, who’ve spent much of the year all but locked into the third spot in the Atlantic. The Leafs are trying to make that interesting, taking a run at the Lightning and Bruins in an effort to at least land home-ice advantage in the first round, although that’s still a longshot. But with nine wins in their last ten and two lines filling the net, they’re at least looking more like the team that was briefly considered a Stanley Cup favourite back in October. That stretch has included wins over a couple of legitimate Cup contenders in the Predators and Lightning. Tonight, they get a shot at another one.

It all adds up to a good test for both teams, and a decent measuring stick of where we’re at in an Eastern Conference that suddenly seems wide open. We’ll hold off on any conference final preview hyperbole for now, since the Lightning, Bruins and Capitals will all have something to say about that. But if both of these teams keep rolling the way they have, we make no promises about where the hype machine may be at when they face off again three weeks from now.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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