After a rough loss in Buffalo, Pittsburgh Penguins fans could use a little cheering up. This season, they are 12-7-1 against teams in a playoff spot, with 25 points, tied for sixth league-wide with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Philadelphia Flyers.
The Penguins rank at the top of their division against said competition, which is a very good look for them as the playoffs loom ahead. Let’s take a look at how their competition fares.
The Washington Capitals are 8-7-3 against playoff teams this season, which gives them 19 points, six less than the Penguins, and has them at 21st in the NHL.
The Penguins are 4-2-0 against the Capitals this season, outscoring them 21-20. They have performed well against them in what have been mainly high-scoring games.
The Capitals’ main weakness this season has been goaltending, as Henrik Lundqvist has missed the entirety of the 2020-21 campaign. They’ve had to run two unexperienced goaltenders in Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek, along with an old, bad Craig Anderson as the third-string. The trio combines for -13.82 goals saved above expected (GSAx), meaning they have allowed substantially more goals than they should have based on the shot quality faced.
The Capitals have been a very solid team defensively, ranking ninth in the league in expected goals against per 60 (xGA/60) with 2.12, showing that if they can just get some reliable goaltending, they will be a threat, especially to the Penguins.
Overall, the Capitals are probably the Penguins’ hardest potential opponent as of right now. It’d be better to see them in the second round after a hard first-round battle for them rather than them well-rested in the first round.
New York Islanders
The New York Islanders are 9-9-2 against playoff teams this season, with 20 points, placing them at 17th in the league. Of all the teams the Penguins have a chance of playing in the first round, this one seems like the best-case scenario.
The Penguins are 6-2-0 against the Islanders, outscoring them 26-19 through that span. Pittsburgh just seems to have their trap system solved at this point, which is why I am so confident. Apart from that one brutal 2-0 game, they have kept up with, if not, outplayed, New York, and although I think the Isles are more of a playoff team, I still think they can take them.
Unlike Washington, goaltending has not been an issue for the Islanders. Both Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin have had great campaigns thus far, with a combined .919 save percentage and 5.51 GSAx. They have played great behind a very supportive system.
The Islanders have also excelled offensively this season, unlike in the past. But I think the Penguins will wear them out with their speedy, high-intensity game. It would be a close series for sure, but I can’t see the same result from that horrible 2019 postseason returning.
The Boston Bruins are a stealth threat for the Penguins come playoff time. They are 10-6-4 against playoff teams this season, just one point behind Pittsburgh.
The Penguins are 2-3-1 against the Bruins this season and have been outscored 17-18.
The Bruins’ high-paced offensive core is the Penguins kryptonite, and the additions of Taylor Hall and Curtis Lazar do not help. Pittsburgh’s big assignment is shutting down their top-six, but specifically, David Pastrnak, who is Boston’s main shooter. If they can contain him from around the slot, it makes winning games much easier.
The Bruins are even better than their 25-12-6 record shows, as they have been destroyed by injuries this season, missing Pastrnak early in the season, goaltender Tuukka Rask numerous times, and defenseman Matt Grzelcyk being hit with an injury nearly every other game. If they’re fully healthy come playoff time, it will not be ideal.
The question for Boston going into the playoffs is who their goaltender will be. Rask is 9-4-2 with a .910 SV% and 1.53 GSAx, while Jeremy Swayman is 4-1-0 with a .938 SV% and 1.28 GSAx. Both have been very solid this season, and it’s very likely that this next stretch will tell the Bruins who their starter is going forward.
Most Ideal Situation
If these are the four teams that make the playoffs from the East, the most ideal situation for the Penguins would be playing the Islanders, and then the Capitals or Bruins tiring each other out before the second round.
The fact of the matter is that it won’t be easy for Pittsburgh. All three of these teams can really compete, but it will make for a very fun postseason, that’s for sure.
PIT Penguins Writer THW. Twitter & Instagram: puckempire. Formerly a Florida Panthers writer.