Rewind to a few months back and the only talk of playoffs was how the Penguins ran a very little chance of making it. Now, with only five games remaining on the schedule, the Penguins' playoff chances are more or less secure. In fact one more point pretty much guarantees a playoff berth. All that talk about not making the playoffs has quickly been replaced by talks as to whether or not the Pens can claim home-ice advantage. Let's take a look at where the Pens stand and how other teams are fairing in the Eastern Conference.
Tomorrow's opponent, the Carolina Hurricanes, are surging here toward the end of the season. A few weeks ago Carolina's hopes were much like that of the Pens: borderline eighth seed, trying to stay alive and showing signs of a power surge.
If 11-1-2 isn't a push for the playoffs then I don't know what is.
Last night the Canes kept the Rangers' hopes limited in a 4-2 win at home. Carolina improved to fourth in the Conference, while New York continues to slump their way out of the playoff picture. As of this morning the Rangers are eighth in the East with only four games remaining. Given the fact that 93 points gets you a playoff berth, the Rangers have to finish either 2-2 or 1-0-2 over the next four games.
But that will be hard as the Panthers continue to close position in ninth place with 87 points. Tomas Vokoun has sat out the past three games as head coach Peter DeBoer has favored the likes of backup Craig Anderson. Anderson has picked up four straight wins over his last four starts and posts an impressive 15-6-5 record. Although Vokoun looks a bit shaky lately, odds are he and Anderson may pose as a powerful goaltending duo well past the last regular season game.
The Montreal Canadiens are still alive, improving to 4-0-1 over their last five thanks in part to former Pen Alexei Kovalev picking up three assists in the 5-1 beat down of the Islanders. Montreal is holding down the seventh seed with 90 pts in the East.
I'd imagine last night's 2-1 win over the Senators was too close for comfort as far as the Boston Bruins are concerned but they still managed to get the W. At 110 pts it will take a tremendous breakdown to allow the 101-point, second-seed Capitals to close in and take the Conference title. With five games remaining for each team, Boston needs just one more win to put it out of reach for good.
With a win tomorrow the Penguins can improve to either fourth or fifth depending on the outcome of tonight's Flyers/Maple Leafs game.
Which now brings us to tonight's must-watch games.
Obviously you can decide on your own play list, but with respect to the Penguins I'd say this is about as prioritized a list as you can get.
Flyers/Maple Leafs - 7:00 [Broad Street Hockey/Pension Plan Puppets]
I don't think I have to tell you which team to cheer for in this one. A Philly win, as mentioned earlier, will secure fourth place. For tonight at least. That will change tomorrow thanks in part to the Penguins/Hurricanes game.
Devils/Lightning - 7:00 [In Lou We Trust/Raw Charge]
The Devils are 0-5-1 over their last six. Although the odds are extremely slim, the Penguins still run a chance at taking the number three seed from the Devils. The Devils would have to go either winless over the next five or post a 1-4 record for the Pens to have a chance at doing so. Of course that is all contingent on whether or not Pitt can stay hot and post at least a 3-0-1 or 4-1 record of their own.
Panthers/Thrashers - 7:30 [Litterbox Cats/Birdwatcher's Anonymous]
There's no denying the facts; Florida can still catch Pitt. If anything check this game out to get a look at Craig Anderson before he and the Panthers host the Pens on Sunday. You may have to make a tough decision here. Do you cheer on the Panthers in hopes that they kick the Rangers out of the playoff picture, or do you cheer for Atlanta to keep Florida off Pittsburgh's back?
Capitals/Sabres - 7:00 [Japers' Rink/Die by the Blade]
The Pens aren't catching the Caps and the Sabres aren't catching the Pens. Only reason to watch this one is to keep an eye on Ovechkin's point total to see if he closes in on Evgeni Malkin.