It’s looking more and more likely that the Pittsburgh Penguins will meet the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Heading into Saturday’s action, the Penguins sit four points behind the Philadelphia Flyers in the Atlantic Division with four games left for both squads.

While it is possible to catch and surpass the Flyers, the Penguins have not taken advantage of two golden opportunities this week.

On Tuesday, they lost 5-2 to the Flyers in a game that would have drawn them even in points with their cross-state rivals. On Thursday, the Penguins came out flat in the first period against Tampa Bay.

In the first period, the Lightning scored two goals and held on for a 2-1 win. I don’t know if the Penguins were watching the scoreboard late in the game or not, but they sure turned it on over the final 40 minutes.

Pittsburgh outshot Tampa Bay 31-16 over the final two periods, but only a lazy floater of a wrist shot by Mike Rupp eluded Dwayne Roloson.

Philadelphia would end up losing 1-0 to the Atlanta Thrashers on the same night. The Flyers still had a game in hand, which was played last night against the New Jersey Devils. Again, the Flyers lost.

So here we are. Four games to go for each team and a four-point gap to overcome.

The remaining schedules look like this:

Pittsburgh: @Florida, New Jersey, @New York Islanders, @Atlanta

Philadelphia: New York Rangers, @Ottawa, @Buffalo, New York Islanders

On paper, the Penguins appear to have the easier schedule as all four remaining opponents will not be competing in the playoffs this season. Granted, the Devils haven’t officially been eliminated, but it’s all but certain at this point.

Side note: How great is it that the Devils won’t be in the playoffs this season? I’ve had to move my Devils Elimination Day party up by about a month because of it. If you’d like an invitation let me know. We’ll be watching highlights of Martin Brodeur’s neck turning a shade of red that rivals that of a fire engine. Milk and cookies will also be served.

At minimum, the Penguins will need Philadelphia to go into a tailspin and lose their remaining four games. That would mean the Penguins would need a total of five points to take the division title.

Something tells me that’s not going to be the case. The Flyers are off until tomorrow afternoon, so all eyes will be on tonight’s game in Florida.

After crunching the numbers in my expensive lab (tours will be given at the party), I’m thinking the Penguins will need at least seven points over these next four games to have a shot at it.

The biggest test for the Penguins will be in their final regular season home game against the Devils.

New Jersey always gives the Penguins trouble with that super-entertaining, high-octane trap that brings fans out to the Prudential Center in droves. Scoreboard operators get carpel tunnel syndrome while trying to keep up with the amount of goals being scored. We should be so lucky that we get to watch this team for the final regular season home game. I couldn’t think of a better opponent.

In that scenario, the Flyers are allowed to win one game. If they win two, it’s over. It’s that simple.

At any rate, the Penguins should be focused on securing home-ice in the first round of the playoffs. They currently hold a three-point edge over the Lightning, which was at seven points only a few short days ago.

I’m sure the rest of the Eastern Conference playoff teams are thrilled that the Penguins and Bolts will likely meet in the opening round.

No one wants to play either team for various reasons.

Look at Tampa Bay’s offense. Would you really want to deal with Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier and Co. for a minimum of four straight games?

Not to mention, Roloson singlehandedly carried the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006. He was dominant as the Oilers knocked off the Red Wings, Sharks and Ducks before losing to the Hurricanes.

Had he not been injured in Game 1 of the Finals, I’m fully convinced the Oilers would have broken Canada’s Stanley Cup drought. Even without him, the Oilers found a way to push the series to seven games before falling 3-1.

As for Pittsburgh, if there were any doubts about this team being able to win games with defense, those have gone out the window.

The team is averaging about a goal less per game without Sidney Crosby, yet they have continued to keep pace with the Eastern Conference’s elite.

Low-scoring and overtime games have almost become the expectation, but they are manufacturing wins.

Marc-Andre Fleury has been unreal this season and was very deserving of the team MVP honor that was bestowed upon him last weekend.

As the old saying goes, “defense wins championships” and the Penguins have the defense and goaltending. The only problem is that you don’t get to advance in the playoffs without finding the back of the net a few times.

Of course, I don’t mean to sound like the Penguins and Lightning are the clear favorites to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals. All I’m saying is that both clubs present serious matchup problems and I could see their potential opening round series going the distance.

That is, if the Penguins don’t catch the Flyers.


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