The NHL regular season ends 5 weeks from tomorrow, but the Pittsburgh Penguins first round playoff opponent is already coming into focus. Despite the close grouping in the division, according to Sports Club Stats, as of right now the Pens have a 52.1% chance of playing the New York Islanders in the first round and a 22.4% chance of playing the New York Rangers.
it's easy to see why the Islanders are the heavy favorite, chances are Pittsburgh/NYI is the 2/3 matchup in the Metro Division. There's always a chance one team could go on a slide, but with the way the Rangers improved at the deadline, that doesn't seem terribly likely for their case.The Pens are 4 points (and 3 ROW) behind NYR, it would take a pretty big change in the next few weeks for Pittsburgh to jump them.
The Caps seem locked into the top Wild Card spot now, unless Boston wins all their games in hand and that could be a race.
The top of the Atlantic seems more wide open, with any of the 3 teams having a decent chance to win the division, should breaks go their way.
The Pens have a tough go in the next 10 days- 6 games against 5 playoff caliber teams, a major time zone change from West to East and the dreaded "first game after a long road trip" against Edmonton, which is about the only way to make that team seem daunting. After they get past the matinee game on March 15th, the rest of March gets a lot friendlier for Pittsburgh with 5 of their next 7 games coming against teams out of the playoff picture to close out the month.
The Islanders schedule for the rest of March is more spread out but tougher. 9 of their 11 total games remaining this month are against teams either in the playoff picture or still pushing to be in it. Next Tuesday the Isles host the Rangers for the last time in what should be one of the biggest games of the season. As a Penguin fan, hope the game doesn't go to overtime.
One of the biggest thing that stands out about the Rangers schedule in March is that they have 4 back-to-backs (the Pens and Isles have 3). The Rangers also have a tough schedule on paper with 11 of their 13 games this month coming against a playoff/near-playoff team. NYR also faces the Caps 2 times this month in what Sports Club Stats says is each team's most likely first round playoff opponent.
Outside of Pittsburgh, Washington might have the easiest schedule on paper for the rest of March. Just 6 of the 11 games they will play will come against playoff/near-playoff teams and 7 of the 11 games are at home. If they can get results in those games and the Pens stumble out West, it could open the door for them to jump out of the Wild Card and into the 2/3 matchup.
With all the jockeying going on, it seems like the Pens collision course this year has been set for NYI in the first round of the playoffs, in what would be an intense and high-flying matchup. But, the same could pretty much be said no matter what the Metropolitan Division playoffs shake out to be over the last 5 weeks of the regular season.