The NHL season now only has a week to go, with teams wrapping up by next Friday. The Penguins find themselves now in a fight to avoid the wildcard, and avoid playing a division winner like the Florida Panthers, who have now won 12 straight games.
What makes the battle more interestingly is that it is a multi-pronged one, given the NHL’s divisional playoff setup.
At this point, the Pens can finish no higher than third in the Metropolitan Division — that would set them up in the first round against the number two seed of the division, which will be either the NY Rangers or Carolina. This would be the best case scenario, especially since it means the Pens will likely have played great in this last week and be entering the playoffs with some confidence after winning a bunch of games down the stretch.
However, if the Pens get passed for third in the Metro by Washington, Pittsburgh will be a Wild Card and then the focus turns to how they stack up against the Bruins. If Pittsburgh out-points Boston, Pittsburgh gets the lower of the two division winners in the East (which is still going to be either NYR or Carolina).
If the worst outcome occurs and the Pens fall behind both Boston AND Washington, Pittsburgh draws the higher of the division winners, which is going to be Florida. And, perhaps more importantly, the Pens would jump to the Atlantic division playoff bracket and have to play the winner of Tampa/Toronto, assuming of course they even made it out of the first round.
What does all that mean?
Well, at this point we know that the range of the Penguins’ first round opponent is narrowed down and very defined. We now know for sure that the Pens will be playing one of Florida, NY Rangers or Carolina in the playoffs this season.
But there are a number of different possibilities as to how each matchup could occur - as in, it could be Pittsburgh #1 WC vs. NYR as division champ. Or it could be Pittsburgh #3 Metro vs. NYR #2, and you can just as easily sub in Carolina in place of NYR in this sentence.
Here’s how the 6-7-8 battle looks as of today with games remaining for each team in the last week of the season.
The Capitals will very likely erase Pittsburgh’s lead in the standings by the time we wake up on the East coast tomorrow, the Coyotes are just 1-8-1 in the month of April and have been outscored 45-26 on aggregate this month.
The probable bigger challenge for Washington will be a very quick turnaround from a game that will end at about 1am Saturday morning (Eastern time) to a flight back east, adjusting to time changes and then playing a Toronto team that just out-classed the Capitals 7-3 last week on Sunday night.
For Pittsburgh, they have two road games this weekend, but a prime opportunity to fatten their standings points against two down-and-out teams in Detroit and Philadelphia. Neither game is as automatic as playing Arizona, but it should be cases where the Pens have the chance to handle their business.
Boston, however, may have the toughest schedule of all. Three of their remaining five opponents are in the playoffs, and Buffalo has been playing some inspired hockey down the stretch. The Montreal game ought to be a “gimme” but even that is on the second day of a b-2-b, and depending on Linus Ullmark’s injury recovery, the goalie situation for the Bruins might not be settled.
Overall, last night’s Penguin regulation win over Boston was huge. Had the Bruins won that game, they would be up four points on Pittsburgh, and the Pens only hope to avoid playing the top team in the regular season would rely on staying ahead of Washington. Winning last night opens up the possibilities a lot more for the Pens to avoid that scenario.
The “fun” might come down to a week from tonight on the very last day of the season to determine what the final seedings will be. In that case, one would have to think that is beneficial to the Pens, at least on paper and a week out. Pittsburgh plays Columbus at home, a team they generally do very well against. Washington is on the road against NYR, who could be pushing to secure a division championship for themselves. Boston heads to Toronto, who will be looking to put their best foot forward towards going into the playoffs on a high note.
Another great sign for the Pens to avoid the wild card is how the tiebreakers picture is shaping up. It’s somewhat favorable right now.
Pittsburgh and Washington are neck and neck with regulation wins, which is the initial area this year that ties are broken. If the Pens and Caps are tied after 82 games, there’s a pretty good chance they will also be equal in RW. The second tiebreaker is ROW (adding overtime wins to the mix) and the Pens will definitely be ahead of Washington at the end of the season in this category.
In essence, the Capitals aren’t likely to accomplish much by just drawing even with the Pens (unless Pittsburgh starts winning games in shootouts). Washington is probably going to need to pull ahead of Pittsburgh by a point in order to actually jump them in the standings.
At the same time, though, both the Pens and Caps are behind the Bruins in RW — meaning the loser of the PIT/WSH race is very likely to get bounced to the lowest seed in the playoffs.
Tough either way
There probably is no easy path in the East, especially for a lower seed that will be playing powerful teams right off the bat, regardless of seeding. In the big picture, playing strong hockey and getting into the playoff mindset is another key step, but along with that is going to come winning games.
If the Pens are able to do that down the stretch, they could and should be able to avoid the Atlantic bracket of the playoffs, which all things considered is probably not where a wild card team would want to end up. NYR and Carolina are no slouches themselves, but a combination of Florida and Tampa/Toronto makes for an even more difficult seeding for a team.