The Pens can clinch a playoff spot with a win over Phoenix tonight, but even if they lose, it's close to impossible for the Pens not to win the Metro division. That locks the Pens into the #2 seed, meaning a rematch with Boston would start in the same city where David Ortiz, in response to a story that he had tested positive for steroids in 2003, put on these nothing-to-hide sunglasses and vowed, "I'm going to get to the bottom of this."
|His report is due any day now.|
Boston Bruins (100% chance of playoffs)
They're peaking and are dominant by all statistical measures, both traditional and not traditional. Offensively and defensively, they're the best team in the East. What makes them so scary is that even if they struggle in one area, they are more than good enough to make up for it in other areas. Plus, they have a reliable goalie. Contrast this with a team like the Pens, where if the stars go cold or the defense struggles, they could be swept in 3 games.
Prediction: #1 seed in Atlantic, #1 seed in East
The Pens, and everyone else, after the jump...
Pittsburgh Penguins (100% chance of playoffs)
The Pens have the biggest gap of any team in the league between their ceiling and their floor and are predictable in their unpredictability: we know that we're going to see both the ceiling and the floor in a playoff series, we just don't know which games will be which. And as respectable as Fleury's season has been, his stats are virtually identical to last year, he hasn't put together a stretch of more than 3 games in a row of allowing fewer than 3 goals, and is giving up 4 or more goals at the same rate he did last season (19% of his starts). By all indications, this is the same Fleury as always, for better or worse.
Prediction: #1 seed in Metro, #2 seed in East
Tampa Bay Lighting (99.9% chance of playoffs)
There was a time, maybe 25 seconds ago, when I was prepared to say that the Lightning were the best hope for eliminating Boston before the Eastern Conference Finals. But since finding out that the Bruins are 4-0 against Tampa this season, outscoring the Lightning 15-4 and shutting them out twice, I'm not as sure. Nonetheless, this is a very dangerous team. They have young forwards who are getting better each game (including Stamkos), a top-5 goalie this year, and a near-perfect storyline for a surprise Cup appearance: trading away their captain and being better because of it. So is it possible that the Pens' best hope for avoiding Boston is a team that hasn't beaten Boston in over two years? Yes, yes it is.
Prediction: #2 seed in Atlantic, #3 in East
Montreal Canadiens (99.4% chance of playoffs)
If you stare at Montreal's roster, it's difficult to see how this team is tied for 3rd place in an actual NHL conference. But if you pull up their CapGeek page, it becomes easier to understand: significant contributions from young, inexpensive forwards like Lars Eller, Alex Galchenyuk, and Brendan Gallagher; an almost criminally underpaid P.K. Subban ($2.875M cap hit); and an extremely reasonably paid 25-year-old Max Pacioretty ($4.5M cap hit). They really aren't that good, but they've got a very good goalie and they just got Thomas Vanek who, if he's fortunate enough to play against Fleury, could absolutely obliterate Kyle Okposo's record of goals banked in off a goalie's ass in a single postseason series.
Best thing they've got going for them is that the intensity of their rivalry with Boston somewhat bridges the wide gap in talent between the two teams (3-1 vs. Boston this year). Think Pens-Flyers in 2012, but with maybe 95% less goals scored.
Prediction: #3 in Atlantic, #5 in East
New York Rangers (97.4% chance of playoffs)
The flip side of the Tampa storyline works for the Rangers, with the added bonus of being free from the death grip of their previous captor, John Tortarella. The Rangers started the season slowly, much the same way a freed hostage returns to his life: the pain is still fresh, but every day that goes by gets easier and easier until one day you show up at the rink and idea of a pre-game pep talk from the coach doesn't give you Vietnam-like flashbacks. Never has a team with Mats Zuccarello as its leading scorer been so scary.
Prediction: #2 in Metro, #4 in East
Philadelphia Flyers (94.8% chance of playoffs)
The move to Consol started the shift, but when the history of the Pens-Flyers rivalry is written, the summer of 2011 is going to be seen as another key turning point. The Flyers raised a lot of eyebrows that summer by signing Max Talbot to a 5-year, $8.75M contract and stealing Jaromir Jagr away from the Pens for what seemed like an obscene $3.3M cap hit. Before those moves, the Pens were in the Flyers' heads and got Philly to do typical dumb Philly things. Now it's the opposite. Like most of Shero's decisions, his failure to prevent either or both things from happening was justified at the time. But whether by luck or by good management from Paul Holmgren, it helped swing a playoff series in Philly's favor when the Eastern Conference was ripe for a Pens' waltz. Despite both Talbot and Jagr being gone, the Pens have still not recovered mentally from that series. The present situation is clear: the Pens should want no part of the Flyers in the playoffs.
Prediction: # 3 in Metro, #6 in East
Detroit Red Wings (68.7% chance of playoffs)
They're not very healthy, not very good, and the rivalry with the Pens has cooled dramatically since the Hossa situation. But I don't want Johan Franzen dragging Scuderi and Orpik all over the ice, I don't want to see the crowd at Joe Louis Arena begging for penalties every 35 seconds, and I don't want Fleury surrounded by the bounciest boards in the NHL. They could put their entire team on IR and call up all of Grand Rapids Griffins from the AHL, and a series with the Pens would probably still go 7 games. But the good news for the Pens: I don't think Detroit makes it. Their two biggest games remaining are @ Columbus tonight (Tuesday) and @ Toronto on Saturday, and despite resuming skating, Datsyuk's status for both is troubling.
Prediction: Miss the playoffs
Columbus (56.3% chance of playoffs)
There's always the "be careful what you wish for" problem, but we should all be rooting for Columbus to grab the 1st wild card spot and play the Pens in round 1. They're a middle of the pack team both offensively and defensively, they don't have any dynamic forwards (though they have some good ones), and they rely very heavily on Mark Letestu. Their goaltending is solid, but they have no matchup to exploit against the Pens. They're less scary than the 2013 Ottawa Senators, and the Pens dispatched them with authority in 5 games. There are no soft landings in the playoffs, but if there can be any cushion for the return of Malkin, Martin, and (hopefully) Letang, it would be the Blue Jackets.
Which is precisely why they won't make it.
Prediction: Miss the playoffs
Toronto Maple Leafs (34.2% chance of playoffs)
They've lost 6 of 7 and have three games coming up (St. Louis tonight, @ Philly on Friday, Detroit on Saturday) that could easily mark the end of their season. But Jonathan Bernier's return is imminent, and the team's they're battling with -- Detroit, Columbus, and Washington -- are as uninspiring as it gets. They need 12 points in 9 games to get to the magic number of 92 points. That's eminently doable.
Prediction: #4 in Atlantic, #8 in East
Washington Capitals (31.3% chance of playoffs)
This seems really low for a team that is 1 point back (with a game in hand) of the free-falling Maple Leafs. The Caps just took 5 of 6 possible points from Anaheim, L.A., and San Jose and made a smart post-deadline trade of Joel Ward for Mike Bossy. The Caps are streaky, have been deceptively decent in 2014, and haven't yet ruined Jaroslav Halak's confidence. As awful as they can look at times, they are equally terrifying as long as they are within 2 goals and there are at least 10 minutes left in the third. Some team is going to make the late push and be the "team no one wants to play" in the first round (much as the Wheeling Nailers will be in the ECHL playoffs when Taylor Pyatt finally realizes his manifest destiny). The Caps are as good of a candidate as anyone.
It's a nauseating prospect that the Caps could make the playoffs, but the silver lining is this: unless they come in absolutely on fire, the Pens will be deeper inside the Caps' heads than the Caps are inside the Pens' heads. They may be the only team in the East where this is true. Of course, if Ovechkin scores on his first shot in Game 1 at Consol (entirely possible, if not certain) then this means nothing. But for now, we like to think it means something.
Prediction: #4 in Atlantic, #7 in East
New Jersey Devils (16.2% chance of playoffs)
They can maybe afford to lose 1 of their remaining 10 games, but their schedule is a joke so it's not entirely unrealistic. They're also 0-for-8 in the shootouts, so maybe they're due for some better luck. But still, it's just not going to happen.
Prediction: Miss the playoffs
To sum all of this up: