There are only two more weeks left of the NHL’s Eastern Division regular season, and while the action is almost over, the race to determine just which teams will seed where is way up in the air. Pittsburgh, Washington, New York (I) and Boston are separated by a mere seven points — and that includes Boston playing two less games than your current first place Penguins.
It’s conceivable that PIT, NYI, WSH, BOS could still end up 1-4 in absolutely any order, with fairly equal odds, which has a lot of ramifications for playoff positioning given the nature of the NHL’s divisional playoff rounds to start the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs.
It’s important for all teams to get home ice advantage, it might be even more so for the 20-3-2 at home Penguin team that has been absolutely incredible at home this season, but beyond that, what have we learned about the matchups, injuries, goaltending situations and more about each potential opponent?
We’re still a few games out and the situation is fluid enough where a hot run or key injury could put a big alteration in this list, but as of today, here is a list of the Penguins perceived “most desirable” opponents. Being as all four of the top Eastern teams could end up top 10 in the league, it’s a relative term. All the rounds will be intense and should feature fairly evenly matched teams, with wide-open potential results of a series winner.
Penguins record against them this season: 6-2-0
Why the Pens might want to face them: Compared to the rest of the division, the Islanders have the least productive star forwards. Goal scoring wins contests and while it’s tough to out-score a Barry Trotz team, this club may not have the firepower to be a deep playoff threat.
all situations goals (forwards only)— ck (@404ResponseCode) April 26, 2021
1st line: 61
Losing Anders Lee is a big blow, even if the Isles have replaced him on the wing with the addition of Kyle Palmieri. And in the for what it’s worth file, Palmieri has but two points (1G+1a) in his first nine games with NYI.
The Islanders have also been a very good home team (19-3-3) and very weak on the road, winning just 10 of 24 games this season (10-11-2). The Pens having home ice against the Islanders is probably the most favorable situation and matchup that Pittsburgh could have in this format, especially since that means a Washington/Boston series on the other side of the bracket could leave the winner emerging banged up. Matchups alone, however, doesn’t automatically mean a successful or even easy road to the second round.
Why the Pens might not want to face them: Semyon Varlamov is quietly a very above average goalie, posting a .926 save% this year and last playoff had 13 quality starts versus just 2 “really bad” starts. NYI goalies always have the help of an attentive team defensive effort and tend to shine. However, despite giving up just a 2.11 GAA last playoff, Varlamov’s record was only 11-7.
New York is also coached and schemed up spectacularly in the neutral and defensive zone, executing their systems to a tee. But the Pens have played well against NYI this year, winning six games against them while putting up 25 goals (3.13 per game) and holding a 25.0% power play.
Penguins record against them this season: 3-4-0
Why the Pens might want to face them: Boston has added Taylor Hall in the hopes of adding a secondary scoring threat, but they’re basically a one line team. If the Sidney Crosby line can equalize the Patrice Bergeron line, the depth on paper plays out for a big advantage to Pittsburgh for the 65% of the time those players aren’t on the ice.
Boston also has perhaps the weakest defensive personnel, made worse by an injury to Brandon Carlo that has him still a ways away from coming back to play.
Why the Pens might not want to face them: The Bruins have the best head-to-head record against Pittsburgh of any playoff team, and won’t be an easy out. For a “one line team”, that one line is really good.
...Plus with known Penguin killers in Jaroslav Halak and Tuukka Rask on the roster, they have by far the most experienced and best known quantities in net. As we saw just last year, a strong veteran goalie can heat up and give the Pens problems.
Penguins record against them this season: 4-2-0
Why the Pens might want to face them: Pittsburgh/Washington seems like a yearly playoff occurrence, and either in the first or second round this is probably a battle that is going to happen sooner or later, might as well get it out of the way before the Capitals might gain momentum by winning a playoff round.
The Pens have scored 20 goals in the six games against the Caps so far this season (3.33 per) but have also given up 20 goals. Still, the Capitals have the most unknown and unsettled situation in goal of any playoff team in the division with Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek both having exactly zero career NHL playoff games under their belts. That could prove to mean nothing, or it could turn into an area of weakness.
As written before, Pittsburgh and Washington are basically mirror images of each other in terms of team strengths. The Caps are bigger, but they’re also slower in the key matchup of the Pens’ forwards versus the Washington defense. That weakness might be exposed by the Pens speed and skill up front.
Why the Pens might not want to face them: A lot the reasons listed above can be flipped around below. Tristan Jarry has only one NHL playoff game, and his career numbers against Washington are OK, but only just OK (2-2, 2.77 GAA, .914 save%). There’s no guarantee Jarry will out-duel the Washington netminder, especially if the talented Samsonov claims the top job.
The Penguins will also have issues with the size and speed of the Washington forward group, which is deep and filled with stars and big bodies. Net-front defending has been an issue for the Pens at times this season and could be exposed as well.
No matter which scenario emerges, there are some reasons for optimism and areas of concern. This isn’t a year where the Pens will see a random Ottawa or NYR or Columbus team that they are superior to in the first round. It will end up in being an exciting matchup, no matter how the last handful of games play out.
For Pittsburgh, the key will be to win as much as possible to carry momentum into the playoffs, plus have the home ice edge. And perhaps just as close behind, the health of the team to get all their players through these last two weeks while adding Evgeni Malkin and Brandon Tanev will bring an extra gear of dynamic play to a lineup that has already been contending for first place over the past few weeks.
Which team would represent the most favorable first round matchup for the Penguins?
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New York Islanders