The Penguins currently sit 2 points ahead of the New Jersey Devils for first place in the Atlantic Division.
The Devils have a game in hand on the Penguins.
Without getting into specific scenarios (and assuming the teams play to the same W/L records the rest of the way), if the Devils win that "game in hand" they will win the division based on the NHL tie breaking rules *(see those at the end of this blog!!!).
See AGAINST THE REST OF THE NHL if you want to feel a little better about how my assumption above might not be such a good one when it comes to how the Devils will play the rest of the way.
THE SEASON SERIES
The Penguins were 0-6 against the Devils this year, scoring only 5 goals in six games, while all lowing 22 goals against.
For most of the series, they looked like a team that would struggle to make the playoffs.
The Devils on the other hand, have appeared as if they could defeat the Penguins 6 more times if they had to. Marty Brodeur has been fantastic and the rest of the team simply has made the Penguins look more like an AHL team playing an NHL team, than two teams fighting it out for first place in their division.
AGAINST THE REST OF THE NHL
Some quick math tells us that the Devils have earned 76 points in games against the rest of the league (65 games).
Conversely, the Penguins have earned 90 points in games against the rest of the league (66 games)
I have watched a fair number of games that the Devils have played against teams other than Pittsburgh. In most of those games, the Devils appear to be every bit of the 36-25-4 team that earned that record against teams not named "Penguins". The Devils have looked very "average" in many of those games and Martin Brodeur has looked "tired" several times.
The Penguins, while rarely displaying the Stanley Cup winning form from last spring, have definitely looked every bit of a cup contender, at least for good portions of the 66 games they have played against the rest of the league.
How did this happen?
Should we be concerned?
What if we play New Jersey in the playoffs?
HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?
Watching the games, it's been pretty obvious to me that the Devils system is something that matches up well against the Penguins game plan. The Penguins plan is to attack down low...cycle and generate scoring chances. All of it is based on having the puck in their possession.
If you watch replays of the games, you will see that the Devils have done an excellent job of limiting the Penguins offensive zone time. They simply have made it difficult for the Penguins to do anything after an initial shot or scoring chance.
This is an oversimplification, but it looks a lot like this...once the Penguins get a shot...
Out man the Penguins on the side Marty sends the rebound or outlet pass too...
Make quick passes to get the puck out of the defensive zone...
Go cross ice to wingers waiting to attack in the neutral/offensive zone
Nobody hold the puck for more than a second or two, unless you have a clear scoring chance...
It sounds like a broken record, but it happened for the better part of 6 games.
SHOULD WE BE CONCERNED?
Going into the last two meetings against New Jersey, I was NOT concerned about being 0-4 against them.
After those two meetings, and the "focus" the Penguins had on "getting to their game" against the Devils, I AM VERY CONCERNED.
Given that last fact, the last two losses may have been even worse than the first four.
The concern is not only about what might happen if we play the Devils in the playoffs, but also about what the Devils are teaching the other teams in the East when it comes to ways of defeating the Penguins.
The Carolina Hurricanes seemed to do a pretty decent impersonation of the Devils the other day in beating us 3-2 in OT.
WHAT IF WE PAY NEW JERSEY IN THE PLAYOFFS?
As we all know...the playoffs are a different animal.
We don't know how much of what transpired in the regular season will affect the playoffs.
That said, regardless of the unknown, there are some things we know will have to change if we are to be successful against New Jersey in a 7 game series.
The two biggest concerns I see are:
1) The play of Marc Andre Fleury
2) The Penguins and their coaches: their ability to adjust the game plan when they can't "get to their game"
THE PLAY OF MARC ANDRE FLEURY
MAF has been terrible against the Devils. TERRIBLE.
In the 6 meetings, Fleury was 0-5, faced 111 shots and allowed 18 goals -- for a save percentage of just .838. He was pulled TWICE and did not start the game on December 30th (he played the night before, but it certainly seemed as though the Penguins were reluctant to play Fleury against the Devils on Dec 30th since he had been pulled after allowing 4 goals on 16 shots against NJ in the previous game between the two teams on Dec 21st).
Obviously, Fleury can't play like that against ANYBODY, if the Penguins expect to compete in the playoffs. He will need to find a way to play much better than that if we face the Devils along the way.
PLAYER AND COACHING ADJUSTMENTS
This is the biggest concern for me.
When the Steelers were coached by Bill Cowher, I often got the feeling that either the Steelers were going to exert their WILL on you and win, or they would lose.
I am starting to feel a little like that with the Penguins...especially when it comes to the Devils.
I understand coach Bylsma's ideas. Don't worry about what the other teams do...follow our plan...if we execute it, we will win.
But sometimes, it's just not possible to force another team into playing YOUR game.
I was somewhat surprised that the Penguins didn't seem to change tactics too much against the Devils in the last two games of the season series. Those games went very much the way of the first 4...we seem to get to our game early...generate some chances, even score a goal (at least in the last 2 games)...but then as the game wears on, we keep giving the Devils the puck and they exploit our game plan weaknesses.
To me, there aren't too many teams in the East that can match-up with the Penguins talent. The Capitals seem to be an equal, if not superior, in that department.
With that said, I don't think the Penguins should lose to anybody in the East except for maybe the Capitals...so long as the players put in the proper effort that will allow the talent they have to take them to the next level.
But, I don't think that can be done with a single minded game plan. Sure, maybe each game should start that way...but I hope there is an equally well thought out plan B, for situations that need it. This team is good enough to win in different ways, and they better be ready to do that once April rolls around.
In the event teams are tied in the standings, the following tiebreakers are applied to determine which team receives the higher seeding.
1. The fewer number of games played (i.e., superior points percentage).
2. The greater number of games won.
3. The greater number of points earned in games between the tied clubs. If two clubs are tied, and have not played an equal number of home games against each other, points earned in the first game played in the city that had the extra game shall not be included. If more than two clubs are tied, the higher percentage of available points earned in games among those clubs, and not including any "odd" games, shall be used to determine the standing.
4. Goal differential.