COMMENTARY | Much has been made about the disparity between the NHL's conferences this season. Thursday, two of the top teams in their respective divisions will face off in Pittsburgh, as the East-leading Penguins take on the Pacific Division-leading San Jose Sharks.
Pittsburgh (19-9-1, 39 points) led the Eastern Conference in points as of Wednesday morning, in addition to holding a 9-point lead over the Washington Capitals in the [next synonym for awful] Metropolitan Division.
San Jose, by contrast, is out front despite playing in hockey's tightest group. The Sharks (19-3-5, 43 points) have won six straight and hold the lead in the Pacific Division, which also includes the Phoenix Coyotes, Anaheim Ducks and LA Kings, making for one of hockey's toughest division races.
Though they rank similarly and are separated by just four points, the Sharks and Pens have taken different paths to the top of their divisions.
Pittsburgh's lead has been built primarily on special teams, where a rejuvenated penalty kill has worked to support the league's top power play (26.0 percent). San Jose has found success with a more balanced game, ranking near the top of the league in scoring and goal prevention despite middling success on special teams.
When the teams meet Thursday, they'll be matching different sets of strengths.
The Penguins have played well of late, running off four-straight wins to move back atop the Conference. Their nine-point division lead is the largest 1-2 margin in hockey. Of course, playing in hockey's worst division doesn't hurt.
At the moment, the Pens' four-straight wins mark the second-longest winning streak in the league. The longest? The Sharks, who've run off six and counting.
How have these teams built their current stretches of success? For Pittsburgh, it's been all about special teams.-The Penguins have 7 power play goals over their four-game streak, converting on half of their 14 chances. That stretch has moved them to 26 percent on the year, best in the NHL. No team has scored more power play goals than Pittsburgh's 26. -The penalty kill, too, has been solid. They've killed 10 of 12 chances in their last four games (83 percent) and 27 out of 30 (90 percent) in their last 10 games, over which span they have a record of 7-2-1. -On the year, the Penguins have the top-ranked PP unit (26.0 percent) and 6th-ranked PK unit (85.5 percent), one of the best combined special teams group in hockey. The Penguins power play is a who's-who of offensive all-stars, with two Olympic locks in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and legitimate hopefuls in James Neal, Chris Kunitz and defenders Kris Letang & Paul Martin, who have split time on the top unit.
San Jose doesn't want for star power of its own. However, the Sharks have won with balanced contribution up and down their lineup and stellar play at even-strength.-The Sharks rank second in hockey in goals per game at 3.44 goals per game. Their 68 even-strength goals scored are third-most in hockey, behind only Chicago and Anaheim. -Their goal prevention is similarly strong. The Sharks have allowed just 58 goals this year, fourth-best in hockey despite a penalty kill that ranks 16th in the league. -San Jose is balanced. They've got five skaters with 20 or more points, 11 with 10 or more points and only two skaters with a negative plus-minus rating. Given their successes, Pittsburgh and San Jose should be good for another tight contest. Four of their last six meetings have gone to overtime or a shootout , with San Jose winning five of those six games.
Overall, the West is dominating the East this season. Counting overtime losses as losses, and not as the vague, conceptual non-losses that exist only in the NHL, Pittsburgh is one of only two Eastern Conference teams (4-2-0) with a winning record against West opponents this season .
Meanwhile, the Sharks have crushed East opponents this year with an 8-1-1 record against the opposite conference.
Pittsburgh and Boston are the only two teams to assert themselves in the East this year. Meanwhile, it seems that all but two teams in the West could conceivably end their year with a playoff berth.
Pitting some of the best of each conference against one another should provide a good barometer of where each team really stands.
James Conley is the Pittsburgh Penguins beat writer for the Yahoo Contributor Network and an Editor as SB Nation's Pensburgh.
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