It's a rare lull in the schedule for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who don't practice today and don't play until a weird 5 PM start time Sunday afternoon/evening against Columbus.
With that in mind and in need of something to do today, let's start a fun Friday debate, with a mind for the playoffs. For answers, let's use the top 10 teams in the East right now, and we won't repeat any teams, to make it more fun:
Team you'd most want the Pens to play in Round 1: The ideal would be Florida (Pens win Metro, Florida grabs a wild card) but that seems very unlikely to play out, especially the Pens winning the Metro part. Still, the Pens have played Round 1's the past two years against basically the same types of teams in NYI, CBJ: young, upstarts with little to no playoff experience and Florida fits that mold this season. Like the past two years, Pittsburgh would move on with this matchup, and that's pretty much the only team out there that I would be comfortable speaking in that absolute.
Divisional team you'd most want the Pens to play in Round 1: There's no easy answer to this one. I'm going to take the New York Islanders. They have the worst PK in the league right now (74.6%) and even though the Pens PP hasn't been reliable of late, that's a great matchup to exploit. The Islanders have buckled down in shots against (7th in the league) but they're 21st in goals allowed per game. Which tells me they're either giving up a lot of good scoring chances, and/or not getting enough goaltending. The Islanders are also not a great road team. Visions of 2010 Jaroslav Halak loom large, and the Islanders are a young, fast, impressive team up front but relative to other options, NYI ought be the best matchup for the Penguins, because they're the team Pittsburgh would most likely be able to outscore.
Divisional team you'd least want the Pens to play in Round 1: In choosing between NYR and WSH, I would go with the Rangers. They have a goaltender who we saw closed the door on Pittsburgh last playoffs. Rick Nash is playing really well. Martin St. Louis is always a great playoff performer. The Rangers aren't quite as deep as they were last season, which might help, but if they give their younger players like Kevin Hayes a chance, it could pull the Penguins back down. NYR has also hit their stride of late, going 8-0-2 in the last 10. If they keep it up, they'll peak during the spring again at just the right time, much like last season.
Team that will be a disappointment: Montreal Canadiens. They're in first place in the East right now, but it would be disrespectful to Carey Price (.935 save %) to say it's only because of smoke and mirrors. Still, their fancy stats leave a lot to be desired and there will be a lot of pressure on Price to be great every night to give them a chance. Sports Club Stats says as of today Montreal has a 78% chance to play one of Tampa, Detroit, Washington or Boston in the first round. Aside from Boston (who MTL owns in a weird head game), I like the odds of any other team matching up well with Les Habs and doing enough to beat Price just enough to win.
Team that will surprise: Tampa Bay Lightning. I could see them winning at least 2 and maybe 3 rounds this spring if they get the goaltending and stay healthy. They have seemingly everything else that you need to go on a run. Top star producing, check. Secondary scoring, check. Good defense, check. Not sure how much of a surprise that is, considering Tampa's been one of the East's best teams all season, but for a team that hasn't won in the playoffs in a long time, they may take a big step forward this year.
Team you can't put your finger on: Boston Bruins. Almost chose the Pens, there's more volatility with the Bruins. There is a fairly decent chance Boston won't even make the playoffs. Yet, if they do, with Tuukka Rask and their team, would you be shocked if they won a couple rounds in the playoffs? I wouldn't. And yet, just as easily their collapse could continue and Florida might beat them out for that last playoff spot. I have no idea which way it would be.
Team with nothing to lose: Detroit Red Wings. They're almost certainly going to end up in the 2/3 matchup in the Atlantic (which, probably means Tampa in the first round). And yet, they're playing above where I expected them to be and have some decent young players, a goalie who can be above-average and a really good coach. If the big guns in Datsyuk and Zetterberg can stay healthy, maybe the Red Wings can go on a run again. If they lost out, I don't think this season can really be considered a disappointment for them. Detroit is in a good spot to exceed expectations.
Team kidding themselves: Philadelphia Flyers. It was fun watching them play decently and kill off chances off their lottery odds, but recent losses to Carolina and Toronto show what should have been obvious all along- they have no chance of making the playoffs with the team they have.
Team headed in the right direction: Capitals. Hate to say it, but Trotz's systems have them more balanced. They're deeper than they've been in recent years, particularly on defense. They were a floundering non-playoff team last season, now they'll surely make the playoffs this year and should build upon that even further next year with a core mostly in their primes and young players joining the rush.
Team with the most to prove: Penguins. Expectations are sky high, results seem middling so far with a likely first round in the 2/3 Metro spot. With Crosby and Malkin the Pens put a target on their own back last spring by firing a good coach and GM. They wanted different results, and with the playoffs we'll see if ownership achieves that, or if they're back to the drawing board for next year.