With two games to play in the regular season, the Pittsburgh Penguins have a fairly firm grasp of their Stanley Cup chances. At the same time, there are a number of uncertainties about what the next week might hold.
To help sort it out, let’s break the situation down into known and unknown factors:
Known: The Penguins have clinched the top seed in the Eastern Conference and will start the playoffs at home, most likely Wednesday night.
Unknown: Pittsburgh’s could feasibly face one of four different teams in the first round. According to Sports Club Stats, the Rangers (35 percent) and Senators (33) are essentially co-favorites to face the Pens next week. The Islanders, despite their impressive surge, still have about a 1-in-5 chance to finish in eighth and start the postseason at Consol Energy Center. Also, Winnipeg’s dream of playoff hockey is still alive, as the Jets have an 11 percent shot at squeezing into the field.
Known: Injured Penguins Sidney Crosby, James Neal and Paul Martin have all been practicing at various levels of intensity in the past few days, inspiring hope that all three will be back on the ice for Game 1 of the playoffs.
Unknown: We still don’t know if any of them, plus the recently injured Brooks Orpik, will play at least one regular-season game before hopping into the postseason cauldron. Orpik and Crosby, who is getting more dental work today, stayed in Pittsburgh while the team flew to New Jersey for tonight’s game against the Devils. Neal and Martin skated Thursday morning at the Prudential Center, but weren’t assigned to a particular forward line/defense pairing. That indicates they will be in the press box for the game.
Known: In a similar vein, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson report that Crosby will seek medical clearance to play in the next couple of days. The above article also asserts that Crosby will not be on the ice for the Penguins’ regular-season finale Saturday, which means Tampa Bay’s Martin St. Louis will probably win the NHL scoring title.
Unknown: Crosby’s broken jaw certainly cost him his second Art Ross Trophy, but will it prevent him from claiming the league MVP for the second time? Alex Ovechkin, John Tavares, Patrick Kane and Sergei Bobrovski have all received support for their Hart candidacy, but will the power of recency be enough to overcome the fact that it took 25 days for someone to surpass Crosby for the scoring lead?
Known: Trade acquisitions Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Jussi Jokinen and Douglas Murray have risen to the occasion with Crosby, Neal, Martin and Evgeni Malkin all missing significant time over the past month.
Unknown: How will the new guys’ roles change with the reintroduction of the aforementioned recovering players? We can assume Iginla will have a top-six spot no matter who plays, with Morrow and Jokinen slotting into the bottom two forward lines. Murray is an interesting case, as he’s fit in well alongside Matt Niskanen. I would expect those two to stay together with Martin, Orpik, Kris Letang and Mark Eaton making up the rest of the defense corps.