Who Will the Penguins Play in the Playoffs?

USA TODAY Sports

It's never too early to forecast a first-round playoff matchup when your team is 15 points up in the division with a month left in the season.

Even with the Pittsburgh Penguins recent two-game losing streak to the Philadelphia Flyers, the awesomely cool website Sports Club Stats still projects that even if the Pens go 3-10-2 in the last 15 games of the season, they'll have a 93% chance of winning the division.

Improve that record to 6-9-0, and it's a 100% chance of being the first-ever winner of the Metropolitan Division.

By our math, the Penguins magic number to win the division is 15 - any combination of Pens wins or Flyers losses of points that add up to 15 and it'll be mathematically clinched. So if the Penguins beat the Stars tonight, and Philly loses to Chicago (in regulation) the magic number would shrink to 11 just like that.

Anyways, with the divisional title a matter of time, let's take a look forward to the playoffs. The Pens and Boston Bruins have been jockeying back and forth for the number one overall seed in the East all winter, but with Boston currently riding a 9-game winning streak, they've built their edge over the Pens to 5 points and probably will be the #1 overall seed in the East, getting to play the #2 wild card team.

Which means, probably, the Penguins are going to be playing the #1 wildcard team in the first round of the 2014 NHL playoffs.

According to Sports Club Stats, who would be the Pens' most likely first-round match-up today?

Toronto - 32.2%

This is a huge number coming into focus - the Maple Leafs are close in the standings to Tampa and Montreal, but have far fewer regulation/OT wins (ROW), which is the first tie-breaker and puts them in the wild-card many times in Sports Club Stats' simulations.

And, about a year after Toronto head coach Randy Carlyle said, "Is that the hockey gods sending a message?" when he learned of Sidney Crosby breaking his jaw, what a wonderful match-up that would be. Toronto/Pittsburgh, two hockey hotbeds with media spotlights and intensity would make for a terrific series in the eyes of hockey fans.

It also seems favorable for the Penguins too. Toronto is last in the league, by far, allowing an amazing 36.3 shots against per night. Their penalty kill is 28th in the league at 78.4% and their goals/against is 26th in the league at 3.00 per game - highest among likely playoff teams.

A defensively lax team that allows a TON of shots (and goals) and has a poor penalty kill is probably a tailor-made playoff opponent for the Penguins to feast on.

Montreal - 18.1%

This series wouldn't be short any story lines either, with former head coach Michel Therrien looking to exact revenge on the team that dumped him and then went on to win the Stanley Cup. And recent Olympic gold medalists Carey Price and Sidney Crosby battling it out, all under the microscope and bright lights of a crazed Montreal venue and media circus.

Montreal is a less favorable match-up for Pittsburgh, with their 4th ranked penalty kill and being top 10 in goals/against in the league. Throw in a goalie in Price capable of playing at a very high level, built-in villain P.K. Subban and notorious Penguin killers Daniel Briere and Brian Gionta and I'm getting heartburn just thinking about this potential run-in.

Despite the match-up headache of another small, fast, speedy offensive team, Pittsburgh ought to have more depth up-front than the Montreal defense can handle. Price might slow the Pens down, but in a best-of-seven series we like the odds of the Pens' skill breaking through, much the same way it did against Craig Anderson and the Ottawa Senators last season.

Detroit - 12.2%

Uh-oh, the Detroit Red Wings aren't often what you think of when you survey possible first-round opponents for a division winner, but they probably aren't the same team we remember from recent past either. With several key injuries similar to what Pittsburgh has had to deal with, Detroit's had a rough, patch-work season. If Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk aren't at full-strength, they might be an easy out. If they are at full-strength...

A division opponent - NY Rangers (8.7%), Philadelphia (6.7%), Columbus (6.6%), New Jersey (5.4%)

Oh man, any of these series would be a potential dynamite match-up if the cards fall into place to create it. The Rangers and Blue Jackets offer goalies capable of stealing series, the Flyers have been the Penguins kryptonite and the Devils have always confounded the offensively great Pens.

There are some other possibilities, and a lot is in the air depending on how the final month of the season shakes out. But the playoff picture is coming into focus with every passing day and soon we'll see who the Pens will play as the run for the 2014 Stanley Cup begins.

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