No team should want to see Pittsburgh in the first round of the playoffs...Probably not the second or third round either, and at the risk of pointing out some of the obvious, here's why:
--The Dan Byslma factor. It's widely known that the team turned around on a dime when the new coach stepped in. In the 24 games that Byslma's been behind the Penguins bench he is 17-3-4. That's a pace of 130 points over the entire season. Boston, the one seed, will finish the season with no more than 116 points; as the #2 seed Washington will end up with a maximum of 110. Of course you have to credit those teams for their consistency over the entire season, but there's little doubt if the Penguins had a full season with Byslma's aggressive system they'd be right there with them, if not ahead.
--Revamped defense. Under Michel Therrien the Pens were giving up 3.11 goals against per game. Ouch. Under Byslma, the Penguins are surrendering 2.45 goals against/game. Huge turnaroud there, the return of Sergei Gonchar probably had something to do with it too. Boston, with Vezina front-runner Tim Thomas has given up 2.35 goals/against, Washington is at 2.94 goals against, and New Jersey is at 2.51 goals/against.
--Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Currently first and third in the point race, and two of the top three offensive players in the league, no matter how you slice it. Plus they're the first 100 point scoring teammates in the league since the Pens had Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr pull the trick in 1995-96. As we've learned, simply having multiple 100 point scorers doesn't guarantee playoff success...The Pens have had this happen four times: winning the Cup once, losing in the conference championship once and getting to Round 2 twice.
--Scoring depth. Get past Crosby and Malkin and the Pens still have players that can hurt you. The Penguins have seven other forwards with 15 or more goals, and Sergei Gonchar has 7 goals in 25 games, on pace for it too. Boston has 9 players as well with 15+ goals, Washington has 6 amd New Jersey has 7. The Penguins have scored 261 goals on the season, more than any other team in the East except for the Caps (268).
--Marc-Andre Fleury. Since February 4th, here's MAF's stat-line: 18-5-4 (3 losses in shootout, which don't exist in playoffs)... 2.50 GAA, 93.1% save percentage. That's rounding into his 2007-08 playoff form of : 14-6, 1.97 GAA, 93.3% save percentage. Fleury was easily the best goalie in the Eastern Conference last spring, and he could very well be the best goalie in the East recently.
--Health and more depth. Most teams key players are healthy right now, and the Penguins are in good shape in that regard too. Miroslav Satan, Philippe Boucher and their combined 112 NHL playoff games are waiting in the wings too in case of injuries/ineffectiveness, a veteran luxury that not too many teams have.
--Experience. Hard to believe, but the once green Penguin nucleus is now the most grizzled group in conference. In the last two springs they've played 25 playoff games and earned 15 wins. Of the top seeds, New Jersey is next closest with 15 playoff games (6 wins) in the past two years, Boston and Washington have just seven games, both winning 3. The New York Rangers, it should be noted, have 20 playoff games of experience in this stretch, winning 11 times.
These factors are nice to have, but that alone won't earn victories when the games really start to count. Still, given the choice between having the above factors like the Penguins do, and not having them like the rest of the league doesn't, I'll take the hand Pittsburgh is working with right now. The Pens are confident, strong and playing like defending Conference champions even if their initial seed is going to be in the middle of the pack.