Three weeks ago, a finish higher than fourth place in the Eastern Conference was a pipe dream for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

But a feverish assault on the NHL has earned them points in 14 straight games, including 13 wins, and has them within one point of the New York Rangers with one game in hand and one final head-to-head matchup.

With a little help from the Buffalo Sabres, who beat the Rangers handily last night, the Penguins now are considered the favorite to claim first place in the Eastern Conference with a 54% chance, according to SportsClubStats.com.

And, since we’re looking at statistical percentages, here are a few more Penguin-related tidbits:

  • The Penguins have a 39% chance of finishing in 4th place, and an 8% chance of finishing in 5th place.
  • If the Penguins finish 4th: The Philadelphia Flyers are the most likely 5th seed, with an 83% chance.
  • If the Penguins finish 1st: The Washington Capitals are the most likely 8th seed, with a 32% chance of claiming the final playoff spot in the East. The Ottawa Senators and Sabres are tied for second most likely bottom seed, sharing a 26% chance of finishing 8th.
  • Currently, the Penguins are the second most likely team, statistically speaking, to win the Stanley Cup, with a 16.5% chance.

We all know, though, that percentages won’t determine the final standings, teams will.

The good news, though, is that with a game in hand on the Rangers and a head-to-head matchup remaining, the Penguins control their own destiny.

But is first place really that important when compared to fourth place?

Absolutely — though not because it’s an accomplishment, as the Capitals believe, but because it puts the team in a more favorable position heading into the playoffs.

The Penguins have a 26-8-2 record at Consol Energy Center and a 20-13-4 record on the road. The difference isn’t huge, but it’s big enough.

With a first place finish, the Penguins will have a considerably less ominous first round forecast, playing a discombobulated Capitals team, a confused Sabres team, or a sinking Senators team.

None are slam dunks, but I’ll take the Penguins’ chances of escaping a series against any of these opponents in comparison to their chances against the physical and talented Flyers.

Even if the Penguins get by the Flyers — and I think they can/would — a likely long and physical series would take its toll on the Penguins, making it more difficult to have success in the later rounds.

But, regardless of the opponent, the playoffs won’t and shouldn’t be easy — even for a Penguins team that is defining itself as the best in the NHL.

The regular season represents little more than playoff seeding. Once the playoffs begin, the truly good great teams will shine, and the greatest will hoist the Stanley Cup.

Let’s hope that team calls Pittsburgh its home.