With only a handful of games remaining in the regular season, the Pittsburgh Penguins pretty much have the first seed in the Eastern Conference locked up. And while it’s important for the team to maintain focus and stay sharp going into the playoffs, it’s not too early for those of us on the outside to start looking ahead a bit.
Coming into Wednesday night, according to sportsclubstats.com, the Pens have a 98% chance of finishing first in the conference. And once the numbers are recalculated to include Wednesday’s victory over Montreal that number will be heading even higher. So to get a sense of what’s in store we need to look at the clubs most likely to finish eighth.
Right now, the most likely first round opponent is the New York Rangers, who have a 36% shot of finishing eighth. The other possible options are the New York Islanders, who are in seventh but still have a 29% shot of falling to eighth and the Winnipeg Jets who have a 20% chance of claiming the eighth spot.
As we all know, the playoffs are a completely different animal from the regular season. Upsets happen all the time, and even first seeds lose to eighth seeds on a relatively regular basis. In fact, since the 2004-2005 lockout, four #1 seeds have fallen to the #8 seed. In 2006, #8 Edmonton took down #1 Detroit in the first round before advancing all the way to the Stanley Cup finals. Anaheim, the eighth seed in 2009, triumphed over #1 San Jose in the first round. #8 Montreal defeated #1 Washington in 2010 – before moving on to defeat Pittsburgh in the second round. And last year, of course, #8 Los Angeles won the Stanley Cup after crushing #1 Vancouver in the first round. So needless to say, it’s important for Pittsburgh to take the series seriously.
So how does Pittsburgh stack up against their potential opponents?
New York Rangers
As a member of the Atlantic Division, the Rangers are a familiar foe. The Pens and Rangers have already completed their season series, and the Pens have definitely had the upper hand. The Pens posted a 4-1 record over the Blueshirts this year including two shutout victories. The only loss, however, was a bad one: a 6-1 defeat on April 3rd. What’s most worrisome about the Rangers, is that they are a much different team now than they were earlier in the year when the Pens dominated them handily. They added a lot of new faces at the trade deadline, and the Pens two worst performances (the 6-1 loss and the 2-1 shootout win on April 5th) came after those moves were completed. In the lone loss, Ryane Clowe and Derek Brassard – who had both just joined the team – ate the Penguins lunch.
Scoring has been the Rangers’ biggest problem all year. In the Eastern Conference, only New Jersey and Florida have scored fewer goals than the Rangers. But if the new guys can fill the net like they did against the Pens earlier this month it could be a serious issue.
The other biggest potential hurdle is Henrik Lundqvist. As we know a hot goalie can torpedo any team. Remember Halak? And Henrik Lundqvist – currently 5th overall in the league with a .926 save percentage – can take over a game on any given night.
New York Islanders
The Islanders, like the Rangers, have not fared well against the Pens. After defeating Pittsburgh 4-1 in their first meeting in January, the Islanders fell handily in the next four matchups, including a 6-1 beatdown on March 10th and a 2-0 shutout on March 30.
They do have a lot of talent, though. John Tavares is a budding superstar, and he has a great supporting cast with Brad Boyes and Matt Moulson. Michael Grabner, one of the best skaters in the league, is always dangerous as well. He currently has four goals in his last five games. The Isles didn’t really start clicking until later in the season after their season series with the Pens came to an end. They’re undeniably hot right now, going 7-1-2 in their last 10 games. So by no means would this series be a gimme.
The good news is that, they’re undoubtedly shakier in net than the Rangers. Before this year, Nabokov was a bonafide Penguin-killer, losing only twice in regulation against Pittsburgh since 2000. But the magic, up to this point, appears to be long gone with those four losses. That being said, he hasn’t been godawful. Overall he has posted a pedestrian, but not deplorable, .911 save percentage and looking at Robert Vollman’s quality start metric, he’s given the Isles a reasonable chance of winning in 26 of 37 games.
The Jets, still playing in the Southeast, are the least familiar of the group. They only played the Pens three times this year, and Pittsburgh took home a victory in two of those matchups.
On paper, the Jets are probably the most favorable opponent. The Pens dominated the Jets in their final meeting in late March, winning 4-0 and outshooting them 43-20.
Jets blog Arctic Ice Hockey summed it up pretty well:
Tonight’s game bordered on atrocious, deplorable and depressing all bundled into a neat little package, harking back to last week’s ineptitudes versus the Caps. This game was so bad that not even a two-man advantage early in third period could garner the bleak semblance of a comeback, or even exerted effort. Instead, the story of the game would a complete Pens domination sprinkled gently with missed opportunities from the Jets.
The only loss – in the fourth game of the season – was largely the result of some shaky goaltending from Tomas Vokoun as the Pens got complacent after taking an early two goal lead.
The Jets’ goaltending is also highly suspect. Ondrej Pavelec has only managed a .906 save percentage and has posted only 18 quality starts in 39 games this year. Unfortunately for the Pens, the Jets probably won’t make it in. Despite the fact that they were tied in points with the Rangers going into Wednesday, the Rangers have a game in hand, and according to sportsclubstats.com there’s only a 38.4% chance they make the playoffs at all.
The Penguins have fared pretty well against all three of their potential playoff foes, but to be fair, losing only 10 games, the Pens have fared pretty well against everyone. Regular season success doesn’t always mean much come playoff time, either. The Pens went 3-1 in the regular season against Montreal in 2010 and we remember how that ended.
So who should Pens fans be hoping for? I think the Rangers are probably the worst option of the three, considering their new look post-trade deadline, and the way the two games played out after that point. Couple that with the fact that Lundqvist could shut them down at any moment, things could get interesting.
I, for one, am just glad it’s not going to be Philadelphia.
Billy Nauman is a Pittsburgh Penguins contributor for The Hockey Writers. He also runs his own hockey blog at backtothefoundry.com. Follow him on Twitter @punchbroadbent