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As the push for the playoffs continues in the Eastern Conference, the strong teams will be separated from the weak teams. In the East, three teams have truly emerged as top contenders for the Stanley Cup. The Pittsburgh Penguins, who have a very comfortable lead in the Atlantic Division, are always contenders when Sidney Crosby is healthy. The Montreal Canadiens have risen back to the top of the Eastern Conference standings under new general manager Marc Bergevin after, finishing  dead last in the conference a year ago. Last, but certainly not least, the Boston Bruins, with their amazing depth, can give Montreal a run for their money for first place in the Northeast Division. Out of these three, which team is truly the beast of the East?

The answer is simple: the Pittsburgh Penguins. After defeating the Boston Bruins 2-1 this afternoon, the Penguins have now extended their winning streak to 9 games. This Penguins team has two of the best players in the world on it, but it there are many pieces to this team that make it so successful.

When star players Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin came into the NHL, the fate of the Penguins had changed forever. Pittsburgh went from the worst team in the league to one of the league's elite teams, reaching their full potential in 2009 when they won the Stanley Cup. Since then, the Penguins have gotten stronger, building on their foundation of core players. 

Since he came back from serious concussion problems a year ago, Sidney Crosby is back and better than ever, leading the NHL with 48 points. The Penguins are a very good team when he isn't playing, and they are that much better of a team when he is playing. Any team with Sidney Crosby on it has a legitimate chance to win a championship.

For Crosby's entire career, he lacked a top winger to play with. That changed, however, this season when Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz found chemistry together. Kunitz joined the Penguins in 2009 and has played with Crosby on and off since then, but the two truly came together as the NHL's most dynamic duo this season. In fact, Kunitz's play has benefited so much from playing with Crosby that he is currently in second in league scoring, with 40 points.

Last season's Hart Trophy (league's most valuable player) and Art Ross Trophy (scoring leader) winner, Evgeni Malkin has dealt with injuries for some time this season, but when he has been healthy, he has been an important part of the team this season. In 21 games, the Russian scoring machine has 24 points. When he comes back from his latest injury, a shoulder injury, Malkin will be the boast that the Penguins need to propel themselves to the top. 

The final key pieces of the Penguins, that can either make or break them, are their defense and goaltending. On defense, Kris Letang has established himself as a superstar on the blue line, but other than him, Pittsburgh's defense is known to be a bit shaky. Their defense is one aspect of the Penguins that can lead to their downfall, like when it did against the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the playoffs last season. That series, if you can remember, was the perfect example of how not to play defense, as both teams struggled severely in their own end.

Like their defense, the Penguins' goaltending has been known to struggle. With starter Marc-Andre Fleury and backup Tomas Vokoun, you never know which side of them you're going to get: the good, the bad, or the really ugly. There's no question that Marc-Andre Fleury is an elite goalie and Tomas Vokoun is a solid backup, but in order for the Penguins to remain contenders this season, these goalies simply cannot drop the ball this time around. Defense and goaltending can turn the Penguins from Stanley Cup champions to losers in the first round in the blink of an eye. However, with all of the pieces that can make Pittsburgh succesful clicking perfectly, it's difficult to bet against this exciting team.



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