The team has struggled in recent weeks and is backing into the playoffs with just six wins in their past 16 games going into Tuesday’s game. Tristan Jarry is injured with no apparent timetable for his return, which could mean Casey DeSmith opens the playoffs as the starting goalie with Louis Domingue as his backup. On top of that, the Eastern Conference is an absolute nightmare in terms of competition where every playoff team has at least 100 points and everybody seems capable of winning a couple of rounds.
Look at each potential First Round matchup (or any matchup in any round) and ask yourself which one looks like a stunning upset if it were to happen? I can not think of one. Every team is good. Every path is brutal.
The Penguins’ potential First Round matchups is now limited to one of two teams: the New York Rangers or the Florida Panthers.
If Pittsburgh finishes in the third spot in the Metropolitan Division, they get the Rangers and will stay in the Metropolitan Division bracket. NYR is now locked into second place in the division, with Carolina clinching first last night following their 4-3 win against the Rangers.
If the Pens slide into a Wild Card they will fall all the way down to the second Wild Card spot and get the Panthers and will shift into the Atlantic Division side of the bracket.
The Boston Bruins have clinched a higher spot than Pittsburgh, eliminating the possibility that the Pens could be the first Wild Card (and ending the path for Pittsburgh to potentially play division winning Carolina in the opening series).
Neither of those options are overly intriguing, not only because of the Penguins’ recent play and goalie situation, but also because each of those teams is outstanding and presents a very different type of challenge.
The Rangers have been wildly improved since their trade deadline acquisitions and have the league’s best goalie this season who has allowed just four goals in four games against the Penguins this season and has a .924 save percentage in nine career games against the Penguins.
The Panthers have the best offense the league has seen in decades and have the deepest forward group in the league. That also puts them into the Atlantic Division bracket where, if they beat Florida, it would result in the Tampa Bay Lightning or Toronto Maple Leafs in a potential Second Round matchup.
Overall, the Penguins are 2-4-1 this season against their potential First Round opponents (1-1-1 vs. Florida; 1-3-0 against the Rangers).
The popular consensus here is that the Penguins need to do everything in their power to avoid falling into the Wild Card matchup so they can stay away from Florida.
I am in the extreme minority on this but I do not actually hate that matchup as much as others for two reasons.
The first is that for as great and dominant as Florida’s offense is do we really expect them to keep scoring at that rate in the playoffs? We have all seen enough playoff hockey to know what happens there when referees put their whistles away, “let them play,” and games suddenly become less fun.
They also have the weakest goaltending situation of any of the potential matchups, and it is not particularly close. In Florida, it is Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight, a duo that has struggled mightily over the second half of the season. Bobrovsky’s playoff recipe is also very well known (and not very good), especially against the Penguins. Great offensive teams with suspect defenses and bad goaltending are the exact type of team that can lose an early playoff series. We have all seen it before.
Would the Panthers be favored? Heavily.
Would the Penguins win? Probably not.
But I do not think it is a zero percent chance for the Penguins, and the goaltending could absolutely swing things in their favor. The Panthers play like a mix of the 1995-96 and 2015-16 Penguins in which they have a steamroller of an offense that just grinds teams down, but they also have a 2011-12 Penguins vibe with their backend and goaltending,
If the Penguins somehow get through that, the would play one of the Eastern Conference playoff teams they actually had a TON of success against this season, going a combined 4-2-0 against Tampa Bay and Toronto while outscoring them by a combined a 21-13 margin and largely carrying the play against them.
The alternative is staying in the Metropolitan side of the backer and attempting to finally solve Shesterkin. Then the Pens would see Carolina or Boston in the second round, neither of which sounds fun. Carolina has given the Penguins fits, and Boston would be up to seven games of Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. I know the Penguins won two of those three games, but they needed a lot of goaltending to get through them.
Either way it shakes out, the Penguins path it going to be a gauntlet of top-tier team after top-tier team to get through. It is asking a lot of a team that has struggled over the past month and may not have its starting goalie.