Thursday, March 12, 2009

Don't look now......

Don't look now, but last year's Stanley Cup runner-up is starting to get rolling. The Pittsburgh Penguins have been on fire since canning hard-nosed Michel Therrien and promoting Dan Bylsma. Pittsburgh is 9-1-1 under their new coach, and now have 78 points, good for sixth in a crowded middle of the Eastern Conference.

The Penguins, who many thought were going to at least be in the Eastern Conference Finals, were plagued by inconsistency and injury. Star defenseman Sergei Gonchar was lost for over half of the season before it even began, and Ryan Whitney joined him, leaving the Penguins with a blueline of younger, inexperienced players.

That inexperience may have also contributed to Marc-Andre Fleury's struggles with inconsistency this season. MAF started out great in October, with a GAA hovering around 2.00, but has been on a roller coaster until a recent hot streak with the coaching change.

All of this came to a head with a coach who had his future questioned during the early parts of last season. Therrien is well-known as a tight disciplinarian, and getting so close to the Cup put many of those comments at ease last year. However, when the team began to struggle at the end of November, these concerns reared their ugly head again, and they ultimately led to the team losing faith in his system and voice in the locker room.

Despite being on a winning streak at the trade deadline, Ray Shero did not rest on his laurals. There was no blockbuster deal for a talent like Marian Hossa this season, but he did manage to pull in two wingers- Chris Kunitz from the Anaheim Ducks and Bill Guerin from the New York Islanders. Kunitz was swapped out for the struggling Whitney, and Guerin was acquired for a conditional draft pick.

Both players have paid immediate dividends for Pittsburgh. Kunitz has three goals and seven points so far, with a game winner, and Guerin has a goal and five points while playing with Sidney Crosby, who has a goal in each of the games he's played with him.

If a nine game winning streak isn't enough to tell you the Penguins mean business this year, the defeated the Washington Capitals this past Sunday in a 4-3 shoot-out victory while staring at a possible season-sweep by their new rivals, something which the Pens have never had happen to them. Look out for Crosby, Malkin and Co- they will be back in the playoffs.

In addition to Pittsburgh, here are three other teams that could make some noise to get into the playoffs.

-New York Rangers: The Rangers are currently at 76 points, one out of the eighth spot in their conference. New York did the opposite of the Penguins, replacing a laid-back coach in Tom Renney with another disciplinarian in John Tortorella. With as much talent as the Rangers have right now, he should be able to work with it and get them into playoff shape. They might not make it far, but they can salvage this season and get some character built up.

-Dallas Stars: The Stars are finally free of Sean Avery, who was not a fit with their team at all. Marty Turco, after getting off to a horrible start in October and November, has come around and has had a great run following the All-Star break. Dallas stands at 70 points and, like New York, is just a point out of the Western Conference eighth seed. It was a trying first quarter for Dallas, but they are making a run of it.

-St. Louis Blues: They are 6-3-1 in their past 10 games, and have 68 points, but I believe that the Blues, with a strong stretch, could sneak in. They now have the goaltender situation settled with Chris Mason, after going through five due to injuries. Most telling to me is that the team believes- Keith Tkachuk could have been a huge deal for St. Louis at the deadline, but they held onto him, possibly to get into the playoffs. While the Blues might not make it far, or even into the playoffs, this stretch run will be invaluable to their young team.

No comments: