And so it goes. For a 15th consecutive year, the Pittsburgh Penguins will play for Lord Stanley’s Cup. Not since Mario Lemieux retired, Sergei Gonchar took a while to adjust, and a rookie Sidney Crosby blitzed the NHL with 102 points (and 110 penalty minutes), have the Penguins cleaned out their lockers before getting a fair shake at Hockey’s ultimate prize.
I looked up the top TV shows of 2006, but they were American Idol, NCIS, Grey’s Anatomy, Dancing with the Stars, and Law and Order. So, maybe not much has changed, eh? (And CBS continues to crank out bland formulaic shows).
The one-off East Division is essentially the Metro Division minus Columbus and Carolina, replaced with Buffalo and Boston, so that has been a wash, too. One playoff team, one bottom feeder.
Side Note: Had the Eastern Conference remained intact, the Penguins would still be in the playoffs by a healthy margin, but they would be fighting for second or third. Carolina would be leading the division with 73 points (yes, Carolina has feasted on the much weaker Central Division). Boston and Toronto would be the wild cards.
Eventually, the Penguins will have Evgeni Malkin and Brandon Tanev in the lineup, so we’re going to proceed as if the Penguins might be healthy for more than 30 seconds.
East Division Battle
Now that the East Division’s four teams are essentially locked in, and the New York Rangers are accepting defeat, the fight will be for seeding.
To refresh the unofficial PHN power rankings, Boston > Pittsburgh > Washington > Islanders > Boston.
Got it? Boston overpowered the Pittsburgh Penguins in the regular-season series. Boston won five of eight. The Penguins have won five of seven against Washington, but four have gone to OT. The Washington Capitals won six of eight against the New York Islanders, as did the Penguins, but the Islanders won five of seven against Boston.
So, if you fear the Boston Bruins, you want the Islanders to make a charge to win the division and Boston to finish fourth. The Islanders currently trail the Penguins and Capitals by four points.
The more likely scenario is the Penguins finish second and hope to draw the New York Islanders. The Penguins have effectively owned the Islanders this season, and Fish Sticks are struggling to figure it out. Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello acquired RW Kyle Palmieri and third-line center Travis Zajac to replace the injured LW Anders Lee.
The square pegs have not fit into the round holes.
Until Thursday night, Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle had not scored a goal since April 1. They went nearly the entire month of April without a tally.
If you’re the Penguins, bring ’em on.
As NYI Hockey Now Sr. columnist Andy Graziano (formerly of WFAN) noted on Thursday morning, the Islanders had a similar crash last season before the pandemic pause. If not for the five-month timeout, the Islanders were lost at sea.
The Penguins’ speed and puck pursuit have dogged the Islanders this season. The contrast has been stark. The Penguins have skated circles around New York, regardless of who was in the lineup.
Palmieri is currently on the third line with J-G Pageau, which presents some danger for the Penguins, as does the top line with Barzal and Eberle, but the Penguins have proven more than capable of handling the Islanders slower, plodding game.
The Penguins have averaged 3.25 goals per game against NYI while allowing only 2.38.
We see how the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals are uniquely matched. The Penguins are 5-2-0 against Washington, but Washington is 2-1-4
The unofficial PHN scorecard says the Penguins have outplayed Washington in four of seven games, and Thursday was a draw, but the Penguins have not been able to put away the Capitals. In fact, the Penguins had to rally in three consecutive second periods.
Oddly, in the first three OT games between the Penguins and Capitals, neither team scored in the third period.
So, what would a playoff series look like? A lot like Thursday night. It was messy, it was tight, and it was competitive. Washington took away the Penguins rush game by keeping a high forward and sacrificing offense in exchange.
The Penguins’ offense came from opportunistic turnovers and finishing chances. Of course, the Capitals’ offense was about traffic and net-front play.
In the season series, the Penguins Corsi battle was split evenly (numbers in percentage): 50, 51, 49, 48, 55, 40, and 54. Call it two clear wins and one clear loss.
The scoring chance battle is similarly muddled: 57, 48, 48, 52, 54, 50, 44. Again, two clear wins and one clear loss. Ironically, the Penguins won on Thursday with a 44% scoring chance rate. The reason was simple. See below.
Since each team has won twice in regulation, you may call it an even match. However, we’re going to slightly favor the Penguins in a seven-game series for two reasons: Goaltending and depth.
The Penguins have (or will have) more scoring depth throughout their lineup within the next couple of weeks. And Tristan Jarry is a clear cut above Vitek Vanecek. Those sorts of things decide a playoff series.
This is the matchup the Pittsburgh Penguins don’t want. Yes, they absolutely suffocated and shut down Boston on Sunday in a 1-0 win. The extreme effort that took probably cannot be replicated for four wins in seven games. And Boston has a habit of pounding the Penguins.
Two Penguins have spent time on the injured list due to hits in games against Boston: Evgeni Malkin and Teddy Blueger, and Kasperi Kapanen. Brandon Tanev was also injured on April 3 vs. Boston.
Most concerning is the Bruin’s top line matches well against the Penguins top line. It’s not just Patrice Bergeron vs. Sidney Crosby but also Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak vs. Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust.
Boston convincingly won that season matchup.
Boston may also win the goalie matchup, as Tuukka Rask is one of the best in the game.
The Boston Bruins do have significant flaws, including defensemen struggling to contribute and a third line that has been MIA. The Penguins can win a series against Boston, but it will take everything they have, and maybe a little more.
And that’s why winning the division could be important. Washington and the Penguins want the Islanders in Round One, but no one knows where the Islanders will finish–third or fourth? They currently lead Boston by only one point for third place, but Boston has one game in hand.
The Penguins are Stanley Cup contenders, but so too are Boston and Washington. What the East Division provides in light travel and familiarity, it takes away in opportunity.
We’re just a couple of weeks away now.