SUN Hockey Pool

Pens favoured, but not by much

GEORGE POPALIS, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 12:02 PM ET

TORONTO -- The mid-point of the season has arrived, which means the drive to the 2011 NHL playoffs has begun. It's also a good time to evaluate four real contenders that could be sitting atop the Eastern Conference come April.

FLYERS ARMED AND READY

While most people are ready to hand the East to the Pittsburgh Penguins, it's the Philadelphia Flyers that may pose the biggest threat to Sidney Crosby and his gang. In some respect the Flyers represent a more balanced team top-to- bottom than the Penguins and may very well be the deeper squad in terms of overall talent. Six Flyers have scored 10 or more goals so far this season; far from the two-man show that has come to define the Penguins, with Evgeni Malkin and Crosby shouldering most of the scoring load. For the sake of comparison, Pittsburgh has only three players on its roster right now with 10 or more goals.

The emergence of Claude Giroux as a big-time point producer has added another key cog to this already powerful team. The 22-year-old is on pace for 74 points, a mark that would blow away the 47-point campaign he registered last year as a sophomore. Of course, the lack of a big-name goaltender could haunt the Flyers as the pressure starts to build down the stretch, but for now the tandem of Brian Boucher and Sergei Bobrovsky continues to chug along with outstanding results. Combined, the goaltenders have a 23-10 record with a 2.45 GAA and .916 SV%.

THE SID CROSBY SHOW

With the sensational Crosby leading the charge in Pittsburgh it's hard to believe anyone could stop him and the Penguins, especially when one considers he's on pace to have his best season as a pro. How magical is the campaign Crosby is putting together? On pace for 132 points, the Captain could net the highest total since the 1995-1996 season in which Penguins owner Mario Lemieux accumulated 161 points as a player.

If Crosby can continue his torrid pace, there's no reason to believe the Penguins won't have another shot at a title this year. The only thing that could derail Pittsburgh's quest for a second Cup in three years might be the lack of depth on this team. Looking past Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the roster thins out considerably in terms of offensive production and any injuries to key personnel could dramatically change the look of this team. So far, the contributions of defenceman Kris Letang and forward Chris Kunitz, who have combined for 64 points through 41 games, have been enough to bolster the efforts of Crosby and Malkin (100 combined points). The return of Jordan Staal has added another scoring threat, but the 22-year-old needs to find his groove before he can be considered a true difference maker.

DON'T COUNT OUT THE CAPS

It's hard to believe that after an eight-game losing streak in early December the Washington Capitals are only four points back of the Eastern Conference lead. With that being said, it might be smart to consider that losing streak a blip in the radar because this team is way too talented to be anywhere but near the top of the East standings come spring time.

Right now, the Capitals resemble the team that got off to an 18-8 start before that ugly streak, and the league hasn't yet seen the best of Alex Ovechkin. No.8 is off to a sluggish campaign, by his standards, and when he picks up the pace Washington should hit its stride. It's not likely that Ovechkin finishes the season with the 28 goals he's on pace for when one considers he's averaged 54 goals-per-season since breaking into the league. Combine his efforts with the likes of Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin and the Capitals still have arguably the best scoring trio in the NHL.

While putting the puck in the net is never an issue with this team, there's been no shortage of questions when it comes to their goaltending. Doubters need only look at Semyon Varlamov's sparkling 2.09 GAA and .928 SV% through 14 starts when deciding whether he's good enough to lead Washington into the post-season. Varlamov, whose health will be a key storyline to watch for down the stretch, may have recently reclaimed the starting role from fill-in Michal Neuvirth after missing extended periods of time this season due to injury. Varlamov's maturity due to 19 games of post-season experience might make him the better option to back stop this team come playoff time.

BOLTS THE NEW KID ON THE BLOCK

It's taken a while for the Tampa Bay Lightning to find their winning form since their storybook Stanley Cup run in 2004, but thanks to a kid named Steven Stamkos they're not only on the right track, they could be this year's Cinderella story. People knew the 20-year-old Markham, Ontario native would be good when he was chosen first overall in 2008, but who could have predicted he'd so quickly turn into one of the best players in the NHL? Currently second in scoring behind Crosby, Stamkos' 56 points puts him five ahead of teammate Martin St Louis who comes in at third with 51 points.

That's quite the scoring punch between these two guys and when one considers Ryan Malone is on pace for his best season as a pro, the stars could be aligning in Tampa again. When talking about all that's right with this team, one can't forget about Vincent Lecavalier. No longer the focal point on this team offensively, he offers unparalleled depth at the centre position and with a Stanley Cup win under his belt, could push this team over the top come playoff time. Although Tampa Bay may be a true No.1 goaltender away from winning another Cup, make no mistake, this team is for real.


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