Don't look now, but the Pittsburgh Penguins are only two points back of the New Jersey Devils for the top spot in the Atlantic Division. The Devils have played one less game on the season, but if they keep up their losing ways (2 straight) then it won't matter. For Pittsburgh, the division title may have looked bleak last week, but now it's a possibility.
Can the Pens make up any more on NJ before the break? Could Pittsburgh even tie or narrowly edge them before the NHL shuts down? Let's check the schedule:
Saturday: at Carolina
Up first NJ tries to bounce back from their defeat last night to Philly with a rematch against the Flyers. Then they get a Nashville team that, while they are right in the mad hunt in the Western Conference, the Preds are slumping; winners of only 3 of their last ten contests. Don't count out bottom dweller Carolina on the quick Saturday game: the back-to-back games (plus the impending Olympics) may mean that Martin Brodeur might get the very rare breather. And Carolina is a somewhat respectable 13-12-3 at home and have won seven of their past ten games overall, giving that the feel of a "trap" game.
The Penguins have the luxury of three home games. The Islanders have lost seven straight games and play tonight before travelling to Pittsburgh for tomorrow's game. Though NYI always battles Pittsburgh to very tough games, their situation and circumstances don't put them in good shape. The Pens then get their first look at Olli Jokinen in a Ranger uni on Friday. During his time with Florida, Jokinen killed the Pens over and over again; going 15 goals (5 game-winners) and 14 assists in 26 games in a span from 2002/03 - 2008/09. Then again, Pittsburgh has won all four meetings with NYR so far this season. Finally yet another Sunday matinee game, this time against the Predators who'll finish up an East Coast swing.
On paper it looks as if things are put together beautifully for Pittsburgh: there's no travel, and they're playing either weary opponents, struggling opponents or a team they've owned all season. Of course, games aren't played on paper and no one's going to lay down and give up the two points just because it seems like they should do it.
Still, if things come together in the right way, the Pittsburgh Penguins could put themselves in the driver's seat for the division for the March/April sprint with a solid three games and perhaps a little help from the out-of-town scoreboard.