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First round NHL playoff matchups coming into focus

It's still very early, but we've identified the most likely playoff opponents for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Here we detail the matchups of strengths/weaknesses for the Pens in this very early outlook.

Justin K. Aller

Now that the Atlantic division is wrapped up, it’s a sure thing that the Pittsburgh Penguins will be the #1 or #2 seed for the Eastern Conference playoffs next month. There’s still the matter of sorting out the rest of the spots, but potential first round opponents are coming into focus. According to Sports Club Stats here are the chances at this point of the Penguins top 5 most likely playoff matchups:

New York Islanders (25.8%)
New York Rangers (23.7%)
Ottawa Senators (18.4%)
Winnipeg Jets (9.9%)
New Jersey Devils (9.6%)

Other teams have slighter odds, but more than likely Pittsburgh is going to play one of the teams named above. Let’s look at the three most likely opponents for now..

New York Islanders

Current status

The Islanders sit in 7th place (20-16-4, 117 goals for, 120 goals against, 8 games remaining) and have been one of the biggest pleasant surprises in the East. Led by the buddy tandem of John Tavares (42 points in 40 games) and Matt Moulson (39 points in 39) and they’ve leaned on goalie Evgeni Nabokov and a patchwork defense to go from one of the league’s worst teams in recent years to a legitimate contender for a playoff spot.

Why this could be a good matchup for the Pens

Experience. Or, more accurately, a glaring lack of experience. Of the Isles 15 leading scorers this season only 5 have played in Stanley Cup playoffs (Brad Boyes, Mark Streit, Michael Grabner, Keith Aucoin and Lubomir Visnovsky). And all that combines for only a total of 64 games. To put that in perspective, Sidney Crosby has played 68 playoff games by himself. A lot of the Isles young guns don’t even have any AHL playoff games under their belts either. NYI, should they make it, will be a great story, but as we’ve seen so many times in the NHL (much like the Pens learned in 2007) there is no substitute for Stanley Cup playoff experience.

Also, the Isles 120 goals allowed in 40 games (for a neat 3.00 goals/game) shows they still have some growth to go in the defensive zone. Given the choice between a stingy defensive team (Ottawa, NYR) or a team more open to “run-n-gun”, Pittsburgh would probably choose the latter every time.

Why this could be a bad matchup for the Pens

Crazy things happen in the playoffs and the Isles are a crazy team with a very poor 9-11-2 record at home but a sterling 11-5-2 record on the road.

Nabokov is 10-6 with a 2.13 GAA and .925 save percentage against the Penguins. Granted, a lot of this is from a “lifetime” ago (in roster turnover) when he was with the Sharks, but Nabokov has always seemed to play very well against Pittsburgh- and until recently was a goalie who had held both Crosby and Evgeni Malkin from scoring on him. Nabokov isn’t #1 on the “goalies you don’t want to see in the first round” list, but he’s not at the bottom of that list either.

New York Rangers

Current status

It’s been an up and down season for the Rangers (19-16-4, 96 GF, 94 GA, 9 games left) who haven’t really gotten on track but still to have the talent and depth on the roster to be a playoff team. They’ve majorly reshuffled the deck dealing star winger (who didn’t fit the coach’s system) in Marian Gaborik to Columbus for Derrick Brassard, John Moore and injured Derek Dorsett and picked up power forward Ryane Clowe for San Jose. There’s no doubt the Rangers are more in the John Tortorella mold now for the stretch run.

Why this could be a good matchup for the Pens

The Penguins are 4-1-0 vs NYR this season with 6-3, 3-0, 3-0 and 2-1(SO) wins (to go along with a Crosby-less 6-1 loss). Pittsburgh has done great against the Rangers, specifically defensively this season (other than the blowout loss, of course) and seem to matchup well…The Rangers also currently have the 20th ranked power play in the league and the 16th ranked penalty kill. In the playoffs so many games can be won or lost by the special teams battles and NYR hasn’t been great there so far this season.

Why this could be a bad matchup for the Pens

The Rangers rolled to the third round of the playoffs last season on a defensive, “grind ‘em out” type mindset and are very willing to let the other team have the puck and try to block shots (or count on Henrik Lundqvist to do so). Defensively, if Marc Staal (eye) is able to return, they have the depth to matchup against the Penguins two offensive lines with Staal, Ryan McDonaugh, Dan Girardi and Michael Del Zotto. Offensively they’ll sprinkle skill and toughness throughout the lines and with Tortorella’s mind games and willingness to draw the spotlight off his players and onto himself, not be an easy out for anyone in the first round.

Ottawa Senators

Current status

Clinging to 6th (19-14-6, 96 GF, 88 GA, 8 games left) the Senators were written off after suffering one injury after another to key players from Jason Spezza to Erik Karlsson to Craig Anderson to Milan Michalek. Except no one told Ottawa their season was doomed, and they’ve found ways to get solid goaltending from Robin Lehner and the recently traded Ben Bishop, who they parlayed into dynamic rookie forward Corey Conacher via trade when Anderson (.946 save percentage through 17 games this season) has come back from injury. Ottawa has no good reason to be a playoff team given their adversity, but they’ve been able to hold their own and that’s a real testament to the players and coaches there.

Why this could be a good matchup for the Pens

The leading scorer is Kyle Turris with 24 points in 39 games. Though Karlsson is skating (and might miraculously come back from his Achilles injury), it seems like Spezza isn’t coming back anytime soon. The team just doesn’t have the offensive pop needed to advance deep into the playoffs and it would be a Cinderella type season for them to make it to the postseason anyways. The Pens have beaten better Ottawa teams in the playoffs in 2008 and 2010 and while there’s turnover on both sides, the recent history leans to Pittsburgh being able to flex more muscle in a potential matchup.

Why this could be a bad matchup for the Pens

The save percentage for the three Ottawa goalies this season is .935, far and away best in the league, and this is despite allowing the third most shots per game in the league (32.4). With visions of “Roloson” and “Halak” still haunting Penguins fans, Craig Anderson seems like he could put his name on the list with the way he’s been playing of late. There’s also the emotional lift that Karlsson would bring- and the furor and hatred spewed towards Matt Cooke from fans/media/team members alike could fuel the fire of the Senators’ resolve. Ottawa’s penalty kill is 2nd in the league at 87.9% and they could bog the Pens down into close, tightly contested games that could go to either team as the result of one big shot/save or bounce.


From a matter of personal opinion, I believe the Rangers have the deepest collection of forwards/defensemen of any of these three teams and the right mix of veterans, younger players, skill, toughness to be the toughest draw for Pittsburgh of three contenders detailed. NYR also has the most talented and playoff-tested goalie, and (like him or not) a coach who has won the Stanley Cup and is very experienced in his craft this time of year.

For second place, I would put Ottawa in lieu of the defensive success and seriously unreal numbers that Craig Anderson has put up this season. With or without Karlsson, Michalek and Spezza their younger players have really bought into the team concept and they’ve executed Paul McLean’s system to a T. Ottawa is the type of team that if they got a top gun or two back, they could be a prime choice as a #6, 7 8 seed to pull a classic first round upset that we see so much of in hockey every season.

Lastly, of the three teams we detailed I’d put the Islanders as the most favorable matchup. They’ve had a solid season, and credit to them from going from basement to being relevant down the stretch, but as they’re about to learn (should they make it), there’s a huge jump from regular season hockey to Stanley Cup playoff hockey. Their roster is very green and even though I don’t say they’d get swept, they’re likely an early out with the momentum for next season.