The three titans of the Eastern Conference are the New York Rangers (69 points), Boston Bruins (66 points) and the Philadelphia Flyers (66 points.) But the Pittsburgh Penguins are stalking that field with 62 points.
Saturday's game between the Penguins and Bruins was a game between two teams facing challenges as the NHL trade deadline approaches.
For the B's, it's a challenge to right their ship before GM Peter Chiarelli rights it for them. For the Pens, it's attempting to find something, anything in their lineup that can relieve the pressure on Evgeni Malkin's line.
The Bruins' funk in 2012, after rolling through the latter months of 2011, has sparked some concern. The domination by the inferior Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday night — who swept the B's — was the breaking point for Ryan Durling of Stanley Cup of Chowder:
For some reason, the Bruins defensemen suddenly struggle against a strong opposing forecheck. Their defense isn't muscling teams out of the goal area as well as they once were and they are again struggling to find their edge in games that aren't overwhelmingly physical battles.
A month ago, you'd have heard the suggestion that Boston look for help at the trade deadline as malarkey, a traitorous suggestion at best, and all the experts on Twitter would have had the person making the suggestion lynched.
Yet here we are, at the beginning of February, and the suggestion that Brad Marchand go to Montreal for P.K. Subban doesn't seem so far-fetched, the notion that some of the P-Bruins top talent (which is underperforming as a unit yet again) may be needing to pull out their frequent flyer cards soon.
(Oh, what we wouldn't give for a Marchand/Subban trade ...)
Chris Kelly of the Bruins told ESPN Boston that the team expects Chiarelli will make moves if there are good moves to make at the deadline. From James Murphy:
"If I'm worrying about that and we're all worrying about that every night, then this little funk we're in is going to get way, way worse," Kelly said. "As players, those are things that are out of your control, and in order to avoid those things, you gotta play better. I think we need to focus on coming out [Saturday] and getting back to the basics, and we'll have success."
"I think for a while now, we haven't been playing the way we should be playing, and I think that we're a much more capable team than what we're showing," Kelly said.
For the Penguins, the challenge is within their lineup. According to the Post-Gazette, the top line of Malkin, James Neal and Chris Kunitz has combined to outscore the rest of the team's forwards, 19-10.
"Up and down the lineup, guys need to contribute," winger Pascal Dupuis said. "We did it at home against Toronto. Some different guys stepped up and scored big goals. It can't always be [Malkin] and [Neal]. It's got to come from everybody."
Not that the Penguins want Malkin to slow down after racking up 12 goals in the past 12 games.
"For two months now, [Malkin] has been playing unbelievably," [Dustin] Jeffrey said. "But we need to have some secondary scoring, regardless of whether it's myself, [Tyler] Kennedy, [Sullivan], just up and down the lineup so all the weight isn't on the guys on the one line."
There's obviously no panic for either team, as they're near the top of the conference and well-established in their playoff seeds. But bumps in the road now could lead to changes on the roster in the coming weeks. This showdown was a big one for both sides.