Lacing Up is a weekly column taken from an email conversation between Ashley Gallant and CJ. “Stoosh” Jiuliante. Stoosh is a former Faceoff Factor staff writer and a long-time hockey fan.

Adam and Derek from The Pensblog joined Stoosh and I this week to talk about the Pens.

Ash: It’s time to dig out the crystal balls.

The All-Star Game is over. The month of January is slipping away. The playoffs are about two and a half months away, and everyone is getting down to business. Some teams are dreaming of Stanley, others just want it all to be over, and Brian Burke is getting ready to trade every one of his assets (if you can call any of the Leafs an ‘asset’).

Our beloved Penguins are struggling to hang onto (or get into, depending on the day of the week) a playoff position. Will the kids have another shot at Lord Stanley’s Mug this spring, or will I have to watch Crosby suit up for Canada at the World Championships in Switzerland this spring?

Stoosh: Can you imagine being an Islanders fan right now? About half the season left to play, hardly any assets on the team worth trading at the deadline (I’m not even sure Bill Guerin classifies as a rent-a-player any more), and there are still no guarantees you’re getting the first overall pick. Then again, if they finish dead last, they’re guaranteed no worse than the second overall pick, so they’ll get either Tavares or Hedman so I guess that’s not all bad…but that’s another column for a later date.

Back to the Pens. Speaking as objectively as I can, I think the Pens make the playoffs.

Yes, they’ve had a rocky first half. Yes, they’ve got significant players either playing hurt or out entirely.

But many of their problems are problems that can still be solved within the room. They need Fleury to ramp up his play, and the hope is that maybe the acquisition of Mathieu Garon gives him that little push. We already saw an improvement in the team’s play and a renewed commitment to the system over the last six games or so before the All-Star break; they need to keep up that style of play. With the renewed commitment to system, we were starting to see better defensive zone coverages and more secondary scoring.

At this point, they sit tied with Florida for 9th overall with 50 points, one point behind Carolina for eighth and three points back of Buffalo for seventh. They’re nine points behind Philly for sixth, yet eight points ahead of Toronto and Tampa for 11th. In other words, this has become a race between four teams for two playoffs spots. If I had to put my money on any of those four teams to make the postseason, you can bet I’m putting mine on the team that’s got Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin taking the ice for it every night.

The Pensblog: It is still a little to early to tell if the Pens are going to make the playoffs.

The east is tight, and we really won’t start sweating it out until at least the end of February.
If the Pens can play .500 hockey in February there is no telling what can happen.

They have a huge homestand in March that could really help them out. Although that does not mean much right now, the Pens have been lights out in March under Therrien at home.

Stoosh makes a valid point in saying the playoff race is a four team dance. And with Malkin and Bing it is hard to bet against the Pens,

On a side note Ash, you bring up something interesting.

Could you imagine if the Pens don’t make the playoffs, and Malkin is playing for team Russia, and Bing for Canada?

Oh man.

Ash: Malkin vs. Crosby….a preview of Vancouver 2010. My money’s on Sid and the Maple Leaf.

Honestly, I’m a little on the fence about Pittsburgh’s chances at making the playoffs. It’s really hard to bet against a team with Sid and Geno, but the team isn’t faring very well even though those two sit first and second in league scoring.

Sure, it’s still too early to make bold predictions, and the Pens haven’t been too shabby the last few games. The team could go on a ridiculous winning streak, as they have the past couple of seasons. Or maybe we’ll have to wait until the very last day of the regular season – and, of course, that game would be decided by a shootout. Or perhaps Shero will sell off everything and his kitchen sink to Tampa Bay at the trade deadline.

In any case, Stoosh has a great point – at least this isn’t the NY Islanders.

But isn’t it just a little weird that, since the lockout, the Eastern Conference Champions have all struggled the next season? Carolina….Ottawa….and now Pittsburgh.

Here’s another question for you guys: What team (or teams) has been the biggest surprise so far this season?

Is anyone else shocked at what Boston was able to pull off this year, or was I being completely naive when I said that Boston would flop this season?

Stoosh: I’m not surprised at the fact that Boston is playing well. I AM surprised at how quickly everything came together for them, and that they’ve been able to sustain it.

It seems that in most sports, there are times where you can just tell a team is headed for a championship – or at least a spot in the Finals – because everything just comes together. Younger players all grow up seemingly overnight and start producing at elite levels (Kessel, Krejci, Wheeler), other guys start having unreal career years (Tim Thomas, Dennis Wideman), and everything just clicks. I get that sense when I see Boston play this year. If they continue at this pace, they’ll have their division and potentially the conference sewn up by the trade deadline, if not before.

Other than the Bruins, I’ve been most surprised by New Jersey’s play in the wake of the Brodeur injury. New Jersey is this year’s Pittsburgh – a team that loses what many believed to be its most crucial player for an extended period of time, yet plays even better as everyone else shoulders the load.

I’ve been a bit surprised at how dominant Washington has been this year, and I’m still trying to figure out if they’re really that great as a team or if that top line is just that good. I know that sounds bad, but I just wonder how much they’ll be able to keep this up with their defense and goaltending.

In the West, I’ve been surprised at how quickly Todd McClellan has come in and turned the Sharks from underachieving Cup contender to a team with the same kind of killer instinct the Wings have always had. Makes you wonder what a coaching change can really do for a team.

And yes, that last comment came complete with a nod towards the man currently behind the bench of the Penguins (not that this is all Therrien’s fault…I just think this Penguins team has outgrown his tactics. But that’s another column.).