OK, that's a bit of a cop-out, since it could be either the Rangers or Islanders that the Pens see in the 2/3 matchup of the Metropolitan Division. Who gets the #2 spot (and home-ice advantage for the first round) also remains officially up in the air, though Pittsburgh will be clinching that pretty quickly.
To make it even more exciting, the Rangers and Isles will faceoff tomorrow night in what could decide it. We'll let them decide that and look to an eye on what the possibilities mean for the Pens.
Why it could be good...to play the Rangers
``Their top defenseman is hurt. Captain Ryan McDonagh is injured and reports say could be out 4-6 weeks. As we saw with the Penguins losing Evgeni Malkin , that doesn't necessarily have to spell doom and gloom for a team, but Pittsburgh's offense besides Malkin still has Crosby, Kessel, Letang, Hagelin, Hornqvist, Kunitz, etc. NYR's defense without McD is going to have to lean on Marc Staal, Dan Boyle and Dan Girardi more. Gotta like those odds if you're a Pens fan.
``The Pens have finally figured out Henrik Lundqvist? Pittsburgh and the Rangers played 3 games in March, the Pens won all 3 games and scored 12 goals in the process. For a team that's had their number over the years, the mystique of Lundqvist appears to be gone. With the natural disclaimer that regular season results mean diddily for the playoffs, but don't dismiss the overall attitude and confidence that the Pens have picked up in the last month.
``NYR stinks at puck possesion. They're 11th highest in the league in shots allowed (30.5 per game) and just 26th in shots for (28.5). They're a team that spends a lot of time in their own zone and have to lean heavily on their goalie to keep them in games. Luckily for them, they've got a good goalie, but it seems like NYR would be fighting a losing battle in a series against a team that dominates possession like the Mike Sullivan-led Pens.
``The Rangers have a poor penalty kill. They're ranked just 26th in the league at 78.4%. It's more difficult for even an elite goalie like Lundqvist to steal a game (let alone a series) if his PK'ers in front of him aren't playing well. The Pens power play hasn't been gang-busters themselves, but with the talent they have on the ice they're still dangerous. And, again, no McDonagh who plays 2:38 per game (2nd most on team for regular defensemen) won't make the NYR kill look good on paper.
``Not exactly road warriors. The Rangers are just 19-17-5 on the road this season (compared to a much better 26-9-4 record inside Madison Square Garden). It seems like matchups can be exploited- which would be big with the Pens speed advantage over NYR d-men, since it looks like Pittsburgh will have home-ice.
Why it could be good....to play the Islanders
``Their best defenseman is hurt too. Much like NYR and McD, the Isles might not have the services of their top defenseman. Travis Hamonic is officially out for the rest of the regular season, though he may be available for the playoffs. Still, even if he is, he pretty clearly won't be 100% at the very least.
``Oh and their goalie is hurt. In the link above, it's said that Jaroslav Halak is believed to be out for the next month or so (after hurting his groin in a game against the Penguins on March 8th). Thomas Greiss started out 1-5-1 as the main replacement for Halak, but has since won his last 3 starts.
``Recency effect. Again, not trying to put too much emphasis on the regular season, but it's difficult not to remember (and at least feel confident as a fan) that the Pens and Isles played April 2nd and Pittsburgh blew them off the ice. The Pens were such a superior team that day, and while that won't mean anything come opening faceoff for Game 1, it's still top-of-mind.
``Redemption for Fleury. Assuming Fleury's back from his concussion soon, he could get some personal satisfaction of finishing a series against NYI. Marc-Andre Fleury played some of his worst hockey in that 2013 first round series and got the hook, and as a side-note it would be pretty cool for him to right that wrong.
Why it could be bad....to play the Rangers
``The last 2 years. Fans at least will understandably be nervous about slaying the dragon known as the Rangers given the last 2 seasons.
``Tough to beat when they score first. NYR is a very strong 32-5-5 in games this season when they score the first goal. Given the past - where the Rangers took a 1-0 (if not 2-0) lead early in games and just sat on them, that leads to a little concern, considering they do have a very good goalie. Which leads to the next point..
``Henrik Lundqvist. I may have declared boldly above that the Pens have broken through on Lundqvist (which is true), but they haven't knocked him out of the playoffs yet, recently. That's still something to do, and hot goalies can win series all the time. Playing Lundqvist is always daunting, he's perhaps the best goalie in the game.
``Forward depth. The Rangers have a balanced top-9 forward group that has Eric Staal and Kevin Hayes on the third line. Chris Kreider - Derek Stepan - Mats Zuccarello can stand up there with anyone. Zucarello is the team's leading scorer (26g+31a). And their other top line has Rick Nash and Derick Brassard on it. That's a pretty good spread of talent there.
Why it could be bad....to play the Islanders
``They have a great penalty kill. NYI is 2nd in the league this year while killing penalties (85.1%). Special teams can often decide playoff series and if the Pens power play is shutdown, their chances of winning go down as well. Obvious statement is obvious.
``Big and tough. The Isles have a lot of size with guys like Kyle Okposo, Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin. It wouldn't be painless or a bruiseless series to get out of that one.
``John Tavares. NYI's leading goal and point-scorer (31 and 67, respectively to date) is a skilled center who is capable of making those around him better, at even strength or on the power play. He was the Islanders best player the last time these two teams played in the 2012 playoffs.
``They'd be playing great to get to the 3 seed. Should NYI pass NYR to get that #3 seed in the Metro, it will probably mean they are playing some very good hockey going into the playoffs and carrying some momentum in. This would probably make them a bit of a tougher out than their injury-plagued lineup looks on paper.