Who’s Their Best First-Round Opponent?

2018 NHL Playoffs, Pittsburgh Penguins, Top Story


The 2018 NHL playoffs are upon us, and possible first-round matchups are starting to shape up in the Eastern Conference. As the season comes to a close, the Pittsburgh Penguins will likely see one of four teams in the opening round, according to Micah Blake McCurdy’s projections over at HockeyViz.com.

Entering play on April 3, the Columbus Blue Jackets — believe it or not — are the Penguins’ most likely foe, with a 36 percent chance of meeting. Next up are the Philadelphia Flyers, with a 35 percent chance of squaring off with their cross-state rival as the postseason opens. Then there are the Washington Capitals with a 14 percent chance and the New Jersey Devils with an 11 percent chance.

These odds can (and do) shift wildly on a night-to-night basis, but lately, we’ve been wondering: which one of these clashes would be best for Pittsburgh once the first round kicks off?

Penguins vs Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets have made the playoffs twice in the last four years, and they’ve lost to the Penguins in the first round both times. This meeting would be explosive for multiple reasons but Columbus knows that if it ever wants a shot at winning the Stanley Cup, the road will likely go through Pittsburgh.

This matchup would showcase an up-and-coming team trying to knock off the defending champions and it could become a seven-game classic. The five-game series from last year’s playoffs might not indicate it but the Blue Jackets have continued to improve over the last season.

Penguins

(Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

Regular season success doesn’t always translate to postseason progress but Columbus has been one of the hottest teams in the NHL over the last few weeks. In danger of missing the dance entirely a month ago, the Blue Jackets have found a higher gear and are 8-1-1 in their last 10 games.

Pittsburgh and Columbus have played each other three times this season, with two of the contests ending in a shootout. These teams are pretty evenly matched and the Blue Jackets would need their young centers – namely Pierre Luc-Dubois and Alexander Wennberg – to do a lot of heavy lifting against the Penguins’ top-six.

Of course, Pittsburgh causes all kinds of matchup issues with their depth. Evgeni Malkin looms large on the second unit and has been a force of nature all year long, while a healthy Derick Brassard could come back to haunt the team that traded him back in 2013. The Penguins might have more weapons for a playoff series but they shouldn’t want to see a red-hot Sergei Bobrovsky in the first round.

He’s stopped 290 of the last 309 shots he’s seen and hasn’t given up more than three goals in a month. This would be a winnable series for the Penguins but it would be far from easy.

Related – John Tortorella & the Blue Jackets: A Perfect Match

Penguins vs Flyers

Every single time the Penguins and Flyers face off, it’s a war. When it’s a playoff series, though, this rivalry reaches new heights. In a league that has become increasingly vanilla over the last decade, fans can still count on Philadelphia and Pittsburgh despising each other on the ice. Coaches aren’t trying to fight each other anymore but we’re always just one questionable hit away from seeing that happen.

This would be a special series, as the Penguins try to become the first team in 36 years to three-peat while the Flyers battle to end the second-longest Stanley Cup drought in the NHL. Philadelphia hasn’t won hockey’s ultimate prize in 43 years, and you know they’d like nothing more than to dethrone Crosby and Co. en route to securing that parade.

Bryan Rust

Photo: Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers

It would be a storybook opening chapter for the Flyers, drawing the Penguins in the first round and winning, but that hasn’t been how 2017-18 has gone between these two clubs. Pittsburgh swept the season series for the first time in 11 seasons and scored five goals in each outing.

Maybe you’re of the mind that the Flyers are “due” for a few wins but at this juncture, who would you rather see? A Blue Jackets team that has been steamrolling everyone as of late or a Philadelphia team that has been solid-but-not-great down the stretch?

The Flyers are also struggling to find their playoff starter, as four different goalies have played in important games over the last few months. Regardless of who ends up tending the crease, Brian Elliott, Petr Mrazek, Alex Lyon and Michal Neuvirth all seem like preferable opponents compared to Bobrovsky, Philipp Grubauer/Braden Holtby or even a slumping Cory Schneider.

Related: An Analytical Look at the Flyers Statistical Leaders

Penguins vs Capitals

Usually squaring off with the top team in the division isn’t a good scenario but these aren’t normal circumstances. The Capitals’ playoff struggles are well documented so we won’t dive into them here, but a first-round matchup against Washington wouldn’t be a bad outcome for the Penguins. After all, the road to the Stanley Cup has led through D.C. in each of the past two seasons and Pittsburgh has managed to emerge triumphant each time.

Ovechkin

Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Past success doesn’t guarantee future advancement but the Penguins would have to feel pretty good about this series should it happen. Washington has pieced together a surprisingly strong season after bleeding a lot of talent over the summer but are they actually better than they were a year ago?

The 2016-17 Capitals team was arguably the best of the Alex Ovechkin era yet they still came up short in Game 7. Again, just because that’s the way it went down before doesn’t mean that’s the way it’ll shake out in the future but this isn’t a series the Penguins would enter with much fear in their hearts.

We’ve also seen a bit of a goaltending controversy develop in Washington over the last several weeks, with high-end scribes such as Neil Greenberg at the Washington Post calling for Grubauer to start Game 1 of the playoffs instead of Holtby. That’s a distraction waiting to happen, which is good news for the Penguins.

No matter how this series ends up, there’s little doubt that it would be remarkably entertaining.

Penguins vs Devils

The Penguins don’t have a particularly large chance of seeing the Devils in the first round but there’s still a possibility that it happens.

On paper, New Jersey might be the easiest of the four draws but we aren’t so sure. When the two teams faced each other late last month, the younger Devils looked hungrier than the Penguins. Pittsburgh always has the proverbial bullseye on its back as the defending Stanley Cup champions but New Jersey is incredibly fast when all their pistons are firing.

Penguins center Derick Brassard

Penguins center Derick Brassard (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

No one gave the Devils much of a chance before this season started and we wouldn’t expect to see that change if they ran into the Penguins in round one. Could they steal a game in Pittsburgh early and make the series interesting? They certainly could but they might not be in the best position to dethrone the champs.

Goaltender Corey Schneider hasn’t looked like himself this season. There are some gaps in his play due to injury but he hasn’t won a game for the Devils since Dec. 27. He’s dropped each of his last 11 contests and has given up 40 goals on the last 303 shots he’s seen in all situations. It’d be a blast to watch Nico Hischier and Taylor Hall butt heads with Crosby and Malkin but out of all four possibilities, this road is probably the easiest route for the Penguins to advance.





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