Believe it or not, Tuesday is the beginning of March. That means soon the weather will break and spring will be in the air and it will be time for the NHL playoffs once again, even if this year’s playoffs will begin in early May, a few weeks later than they traditionally would.
As we get into the meat of the NHL schedule and the last portion of the season, all those top intra-division games the league has saved up now finally get to be played for huge and crucial games. We saw three such massive games this week in Penguins/Hurricanes, Rangers/Capitals and Pens/Rangers.
Anyways, here’s the table as of this morning for the division:
Without being too dramatic (which now you know a dramatic statement is incoming) the last week may be when we look back and say “yep, that’s when the division race was over”. Carolina won all three games they played this week, with the important one coming in Pittsburgh last Sunday in a 4-3 victory that the score doesn’t really capture how fairly simple the win was (and with their backup goalie in, no less).
As a result of this week, as of this morning according to the model at The Athletic, Carolina is up to a 72% chance of winning the Metropolitan Division this season. There’s still about 30 games to go, so I guess we can put the disclaimer that nothing set in stone just yet, and the Canes losing the next two weeks of games would make this inevitability disappear. At the same time...that’s probably not going to happen
With the Hurricanes tracking towards that top spot and Washington continuing to spin their wheels, that presents a very interesting development for the Penguins and Rangers. It means PIT/NYR are looking like they are on a collision course for the first round of the playoffs in the “Metro 2” vs “Metro 3” matchup.
As of yesterday morning, the website Sports Club Stats had the Rangers as a 68.5% likely first round opponent for the Penguins. That is a really high probability with so much of the season left, because of the playoff format where the #2 Metro plays the #3 Metro. It’s still very much up in the air which team will finish ahead of the other, but it is looking increasingly likely that PIT/NYR end up #2 and #3 or vice-versa. And I was trying to with-hold publishing it to see how much that number would increase with yesterday’s result — a Pittsburgh regulation win over NYR — which hurts the Rangers’ first place chances and makes PIT/NYR (or NYR/PIT) as the No. 2 and 3 seeds a little more likely.
The other factor that is increasing confidence to predict PIT and NYR as likely the second and third finishers (or maybe third and second finishers) as mentioned above is the stumbling going on in DC. The Capitals suffered an 0-2-0 record this week, taking a 4-1 loss against the Rangers before giving up a goal 11 seconds to open a game against Philadelphia yesterday that they would never seem to fully recover from and lose 2-1.
There’s more bad news ahead for Washington, their upcoming schedule includes Toronto, Carolina, a bit of a reprieve against Seattle and then a Western Canadian road swing (Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver) where they historically struggle.
Unfortunately for playoff drama and general comedy purposes, the Columbus Blue Jackets are just a little too out of touch from the playoff picture to put too much serious pressure on the Caps for the last spot. CBJ took a 4-0 fall on the road in Carolina on Friday (their fourth game in six days) but had won seven of the last nine games prior to the loss against the Canes, including wins this week over Toronto and Florida. As the Pens are likely to find out this evening, the Jackets are no joke right now.
In some ways, when surveying the Eastern playoff teams, a first round against the Rangers might be welcomed. Perhaps the preferred option, given their weak 5v5 play and metrics (as nicely illustrated in this month-old, somewhat dated but still fairly accurate article from Japers Rink).
However, for a team like the Penguins who have had finishing, luck, and opposition goalie issues in the past few playoffs, be careful what you wish for when it comes to opting to want to face off against the top goalie in the entire NHL this season.
While it’s true a long playoff run invariably means facing good and/or hot teams of the moment, a Penguin/Ranger first round matchup means two 100+ point teams (and possibly two 105ish point teams) will play each other. That’s a top-10 matchup right off the bat. While there is some matchup favorability for drawing NYR, that is still an incredibly tough draw, as the 2 vs 3 division playoff setup almost always is. It figures to be the same on the Atlantic side of the Eastern bracket as two of Tampa, Florida and Toronto are likely to square off in what will be an even stronger first round matchup that will guarantee to send a really good team home without a playoff series win this year.
The Rangers may be reliant on their goalie and great special teams play, but that has been a winning formula to this point in the season. They’re likely to improve add the trade deadline as well, perhaps significantly so.
In the East this season, there probably is no “ideal” first round opponent — though at 8-11-2 in calendar 2022 so far, it might be the Caps who are the least imposing playoff-bound team. Any potential opponent has their own sets of strengths and weaknesses, which always makes it fun.
And, right now, that fun for the Pens is starting to see the dust settle already, and it’s looking more and more like it will be Igor Shesterkin and the Rangers that Pittsburgh will be facing in the opening round of the playoffs.