With just eight games left in the regular season, the Pittsburgh Penguins are still looking to clinch a postseason berth for the 13th consecutive season. The team is in third place in the Metropolitan Division behind the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders. However, the Carolina Hurricanes sit just two points behind Pittsburgh with two games in hand.
If the season ended today, the Islanders would host the Penguins in the first round, the first time the two have met in the postseason since the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Still, there’s plenty left to be decided in the tightest division in hockey, giving the Penguins several possible first-round matchups.
New York Islanders
The Islanders and Penguins would face off in the opening round this postseason if the current standings stay intact. During the regular season, Pittsburgh went 2-1-1 in four games against the Islanders, with all four games coming before Christmas. Pittsburgh outscored the Islanders 13-12, with each team earning one blowout win and one shootout win.
Needless to say, the teams’ head-to-head matchups this season were incredibly evenly matched. Both teams have a goal differential of at least plus-29 but have found success in different ways. Pittsburgh has a strong offense but with some shaky goaltending and plenty of injuries on the blue line, they’re about league average in goals allowed. The Islanders allow just 2.37 goals per game, the best in the NHL.
Given most of the alternatives that will be mentioned, a matchup with the Islanders is probably one of the best-case scenarios for Pittsburgh. The Islanders’
Prediction: Penguins win the series 4-1
Calling the Washington Capitals a familiar foe is an understatement. Over the last several seasons, these two have faced off in some classic postseason matchups and have arguably the biggest rivalry in hockey of the last half-decade. They’ve faced each other in the second round each of the last three seasons, with the winner eventually taking home the Stanley Cup all three times.
Even without the crazy recent history between these two squads, the Penguins aren’t going to want to see the Capitals, let alone in the opening round. The Capitals retained most of their Stanley Cup-winning roster, as well as making a couple of strong additions. Fortunately, the Penguins were able to go 3-1-0 against their foes this season, including a win in their most recent meeting just two weeks ago.
Washington and Pittsburgh are similar in many regards. They’re strong at the top with some elite star power, strong yet inconsistent goaltending, and top-tier forward depth. Both teams have lethal power-play units when healthy, but Evgeni Malkin’s “week-to-week” absence is a huge hit to the Penguins. No matter how it’s broken down, this series would again be a nailbiter
Prediction: Capitals win the series 4-3
Columbus Blue Jackets
Another Metropolitan rival, the Columbus Blue Jackets would hate to see Pittsburgh in the first round again. Notorious for never winning a playoff series in franchise history, Columbus has lost to Pittsburgh in the first round twice in the last five seasons. In their last 14 head-to-head games (including postseason), the Penguins are a ridiculous 12-2-0 against the Blue Jackets, including 3-1-0 this season. The Penguins also have a plus-five goal differential against them in those four contests.
Things might be a little different this postseason, though. Columbus went all in at the trade deadline, headlined by big-name acquisitions like Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. The new-look roster hasn’t clicked yet as they’re just 4-5-1 over the last 10 games, but should they make the postseason, they’ll be deep and dangerous. The key could be goaltending, as Sergei Bobrovsky is a terrific netminder who can’t seem to figure it out against Pittsburgh. In the teams’ most recent playoff series, he allowed 20 goals in five games.
Another first-round exit would be a disaster for the franchise whose future is anything but clear at this point. However, the Penguins still look to be a much better overall team than their division foes. The Blue Jackets are near the bottom of the league with an ugly 15.3 power-play percentage. If that doesn’t change dramatically, it would be hard to see them knocking any team out of the first round.
Prediction: Penguins win the series 4-2
In Pittsburgh’s most recent late-game failure, the Carolina Hurricanes came back to win 3-2 in a shootout Tuesday night. With one matchup between these two still to play, the Penguins are 1-1-1 against the Hurricanes this season, with both teams picking up a shutout victory. Carolina is an exciting young team that could make some noise in the postseason and they tend to play the Penguins pretty well.
This is an unlikely matchup as one of these two teams will likely take the Eastern Conference’s top wild-card spot while the other will finish top-three in the Metropolitan Division. It would be the second postseason meeting of all time between the Penguins and Hurricanes, with the Pens taking the last one in a Conference Final sweep before hoisting the Stanley Cup in 2009.
The Hurricanes are just outside the top-five in fewest goals allowed and penalty-kill percentage this season. The key to this series for them might be one of their biggest strengths. They averages the most shots on goal per game in the NHL, while the Penguins allow the third-most. Should Carolina continue wearing down Matt Murray, things could get ugly for the Penguins. In this tight of a series though, Pittsburgh’s experience should give the team a slight edge.
Prediction: Penguins win the series 4-3
Tampa Bay Lightning
This is the worst case scenario for Pittsburgh. The Tampa Bay Lightning have already clinched the Presidents’ Trophy and are a historically dominant team this season. Should the Penguins continue faltering down the stretch, they could find themselves in the second wild-card spot.
The Lightning have the best offense in hockey, lead the NHL in both power-play and penalty-kill percentage, and have an elite goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Penguins managed to win one of three regular-season meetings with both teams scoring 11 goals. The teams last met during the 2016 Eastern Conference Final, when the Penguins won a classic seven-game series on their way to another championship run.
Nothing is a guaranteed in sports, especially once the postseason starts. However, the Lightning seem as close to guaranteed as it gets. They are historically dominant and will likely have both the Hart Memorial and Vezina Trophy winners in Nikita Kucherov and Vasilevskiy. The Penguins might grab a couple wins and keep things interesting, but the Lightning are like a buzzsaw right now.
Prediction: Lightning win the series 4-2
At the moment, it looks like the Hurricanes should pass Pittsburgh in the standings, setting up yet another Penguins vs. Capitals playoff series. With the Metro race so tight, almost anything can still happen, including the Penguins missing the postseason entirely. None of these first-round matchups will be easy, but this team has been through adversity before.
Tyler Bowen is a University of South Florida graduate and lifelong hockey fan. Tyler covers the Pittsburgh Penguins for thehockeywriters.com. You can usually find him obsessing over his fantasy teams and looking for his next gambling tip.