The NHL's Eastern Conference appears to have four legitimate Stanley Cup contenders: the Washington Capitals, the Boston Bruins, the Tampa Bay Lightning, and your Pittsburgh Penguins. Could a team like the Islanders, Maple Leafs, or Hurricanes emerge down the stretch? Certainly. Right now, however, it feels like four elite teams and the rest of the field.
If you told Penguins fans they could pick one of the Eastern Conference contenders to avoid once the playoffs begin, I'd wager the Bruins and Capitals would receive the majority of votes. But with what we've seen so far this season, my answer would be the Lightning.
Some of you probably think I'm crazy. After all, the Caps and Bruins have had recent post-season success, while Tampa Bay has underperformed and fallen short in the playoffs ever since deep runs in 2015 and 2016. The Caps won the Cup in 2018, finally defeating the Penguins in the process. The Bruins still have members of their roster that lifted Lord Stanley in 2011, and were one win away from doing so again last year.
Even with recent playoff history considered, I believe Tampa Bay would be the most difficult matchup for Pittsburgh. We know the Bruins and Caps play a heavier, more physical style that can wear on an opponent over a seven-game series. But the Penguins have been able to counter that with their "Just Play" mantra that Mike Sullivan brought to Pittsburgh when he took over as Head Coach in 2015. When the Penguins play between the whistles and don't let that Caps and Bruins crap knock them off their game, we've seen Pittsburgh be able to out-skill and outlast heavier teams like Washington and Boston.
Tampa Bay doesn't play that game. Like the Penguins they want to play between the whistles, and do so with speed and skill. Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay play similar styles of hockey. The only problem is, right now, the Lightning are just a little bit better than the Penguins in many of these aspects.
The Penguins are far from a finished product. They should get some important pieces back from injury down the stretch. Fingers crossed! Jim Rutherford likely isn't done making moves, and could still add another piece to the roster.
Until those things happen, and even if they do, I might still give Tampa Bay a slight edge in advantage over the Penguins. The Lightning are currently deeper than the Penguins, and are getting better production from their bottom six. While Pittsburgh has two solid options between the pipes, Andrei Vasilevskiy has been the difference in every meeting between the two clubs so far this season.
There are still about two months left until the Stanley Cup playoffs begin. Plenty of things can change between now and then. Penguins fans certainly know how quickly an injury or trade can change a team's fortunes.
As long as Sid and Geno produce like they have been, the Penguins will never be completely outmatched by anyone. Jim Rutherford has also done a commendable job getting Pittsburgh's roster younger and faster, with additions like McCann, Kahun, Marino, and Pettersson. And again, GMJR likely isn't done wheeling and dealing ahead of the February 24th trade deadline.
Any of these teams will present a challenge in their own right once the playoffs begin. If Pittsburgh wants to go on another lengthy run, they will most likely have to face at least two of these elite Eastern Conference foes anyways.
The Penguins and the Lightning are constructed in similar fashions, and play a comparable style of hockey. The Penguins can still out-skill the likes of Boston and Washington. I just believe as we sit here today, Tampa Bay is a little bit better at some of the key aspects the Penguins consider strengths as well.
Wesley Uhler is the host of Steelers Blitz, Noon-2 on Steelers Nation Radio, and a Producer for ESPN Pittsburgh. You can find him on Twitter @WesleyUhler.
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