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Iginla and Morrow to Pittsburgh, Great Pens Team Gets Frighteningly Better

There are a lot of National Hockey League teams that are hard not to like. With only 14 or 15 games remaining in the season, there are more than a handful of clubs that look like contenders come playoff time.

The Chicago Blackhawks got off to that great start and are now 25-4-3, cruising through the Western Conference standings. Anaheim started the season like a bullet but they’ve struggled to four straight losses while those two leaders in the Northwest, Vancouver and Minnesota, have been outstanding in recent weeks.

Nicklas Backstrom

Nicklas Backstrom

The 19-9-6 Canucks have won six straight and are holding on to top spot in the NW thanks to tremendous goaltending from Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo and an extremely good road record, especially for a west coast club. The Wild meanwhile, have even better goaltending thanks to Vezina Trophy candidate Nicklas Backstrom, an enviable work ethic, the brilliance of Norris Trophy candidate Ryan Suter and a terrific 12-3-1 record at home. With seven straight wins (9-1-0 in the last 10), the Wild are just two points back of the Canucks with two games in hand.

Of course, as much as we love the Hawks, Wild and Canucks, it’s still impossible to ignore defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles and the always dangerous – if not always engaged – Detroit Red Wings.

In the East, Montreal and Boston are in a terrific battle for first in the Northeast. The Habs are 21-7-5 while the Bruins are 21-7-4 and the two teams just played a thrilling shootout game in Boston on Wednesday night (won 6-5 by Montreal).

Paul MacLean, Coach of the Year.

Paul MacLean, Coach of the Year.

Ottawa probably has the coach of the year in Paul MacLean, but for the most part, the Sens aren’t that good and teams such as Winnipeg, Toronto and New Jersey are cute, but none of them will be breathing after the second round of the playoffs.

That leaves us with the Pittsburgh Penguins. If there was any question that Pittsburgh was the best team in the National Hockey League, it was completely erased this week. Not only did the Pens get Evgeni Malkin back from injury, they added two accomplished, proven veteran stars — Brenden Morrow from Dallas and Jarome Iginla from Calgary.

However, the Penguins didn’t simply acquire players who have the ability to score goals and make plays. They acquired two players who work hard, aren’t afraid of the nasty areas of the rink and have already provided tremendous leadership to their previous teams.

In fact, when we talked to Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero, he almost said exactly the same thing about Morrow.

Brenden Morrow with the Pens.

Brenden Morrow with the Pens.

“The way he plays the game is something we’ve wanted to try and add,” Shero said. “He’s a guy that goes to those dirty areas and as you know when you get in the playoffs that’s an important aspect of what we’re trying to do.”

Morrow was the first move to make the Penguins playoff ready. Iginla was the second.

Without any question he is one of the NHL’s premier power forwards. He’s 6-foot-1, 210 pounds and he assisted on Sidney Crosby’s Golden Goal at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. He is one of only seven players to score at least 30 goals a year in 11 consecutive seasons.

He scored 50 goals in a season twice while playing in Calgary and he won the Art Ross Trophy in 2002 and the Rocket Richard Trophy in 2002 and 2004. He’s a great player, even at age 35.

Jarome Iginla will soon march with the Penguins.

Jarome Iginla will soon march with the Penguins.

However, suggestions that permeated the media on Thursday that he’s going to skate into Pittsburgh and play on a regular line with Crosby might be a bit premature.

Thursday night, the Winnipeg Jets were in Pittsburgh and they were playing well. The Jets had moved into first place in the Southeast Division, had won two in a row and were 8-2-1 in their last 11 on the road. If any team could give the Pens an argument at this point in the season, it was the Jets.

Trouble was, the Jets were never in it. The Pens ripped them 4-0, outshot them 43-20 and for all intents and purposes, had the visitors buried by the end of the first 20 minutes.

Chris Kunitz had a goal and an assist, Pascal Dupuis scored a pair – one shorthanded – and Crosby had two assists. After the game, Pens head coach Dan Bylsma made it clear how he felt about the Crosby-Kunitz-Dupuis line.

“The best line in hockey”: Pascal Dupuis, Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz.

“That’s the best line in hockey,” the coach said to a group of reporters, and not one even raised an eyebrow. “I intend to keep it together. We have some very good players in here right now, but we’ll keep Sid’s line together despite what you might have heard.”

The Penguins have won 14 consecutive games, 11 in a row at home – all of them without Iginla, all but one without Morrow and all but five without Malkin. This was a great team without three of the top players in the league. Now that it has those players, it has three dynamic lines and has added two of the hardest working stars in the game.

I like Minnesota, Chicago, Vancouver, Montreal and Boston. Each one is a very good hockey team. But right now, there is not a team in the NHL that even comes close to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The fact that they got even better this week is frightening.

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