Five games left in the 2018-19 NHL regular season, and still a lot to be figured out in terms of playoff position and seeding. So, naturally, tonight in Pittsburgh is a interconference matchup between two teams which are in complete control of their playoff destinies. The Nashville Predators clinched their playoff spot on Tuesday in beating the Minnesota Wild 1-0 and, like their hosts, all that really matters is earning home-ice advantage and staying healthy. For the Penguins, a playoff spot is all but guaranteed at this point (and, depending on the outcome of the Columbus/Montreal game last night, Pittsburgh could clinch tonight) and since first place in the Metropolitan Division has never seemed to be a concern all that remains is holding off the Islanders in their race to host the first round playoff series.
I know the NHL schedule makers can’t predict who will be in the playoff race or who won’t by the time late March and early April roll around, but man, these last few games are going to be a drag. I don’t see how they couldn’t make it so the last few weeks of the season are dedicated to intradivision games. They couldn’t have had Nashville come to Pittsburgh any other time? Or swap the upcoming home-and-home against Detroit sometime earlier in the season? Only two of these last five games, against the Rangers and Hurricanes, make sense.
Of course, it helps that the Predators and Penguins have played each other recently, not just in the context of the regular season (the Penguins’ 2-1 shootout win on March 21) but of course the 2017 Stanley Cup Finals which was a surprise across the board. Who would have thought that the Penguins would not only make the Finals but win it as well without the services of Kris Letang? It is interesting how sometimes a team needs to face adversity before emerging as a serious contender for a championship.
Along with a ton of other people, I am presently eating half of a crow pie in thinking back in November that the Penguins were too much of a train wreck to even make the playoffs, let alone contend for the Cup. Well, general manager Jim Rutherford was able to remove most of the garbage from the roster, Matt Murray got back to his normal self, and probably the only thing stopping anyone from believing the Penguins can contend for the Cup again, besides their presently tattered lineup, is the path they’ll likely have to take to get to the Finals. (I’m saving the other half of this pie for mid-June.)
Right now, the most likely route involves a first-round match against either a fraudulent New York Islanders team or the entertaining Carolina Hurricanes, a second-round match against the Capitals (as usual), then the Tampa Bay Lightning unless something unexpected happens. If the Penguins can maintain their current state of play and return to full health, there’s not much reason to doubt that they could be Cup Finalists again. Then, the Western Conference Finalist, who very well could be this Predators team, will have gone through their own gauntlet of teams that are pretty defense-oriented (six of the top ten teams in fewest goals allowed and fewest shots allowed per game are in the Western Conference). (This has been the Pens.Hockey Very Quick Playoff Preview. We may or may not have a fuller preview prior to the playoffs.)
Obviously, this is getting way ahead of things. It’s too bad, because the Penguins are so close to clinching yet it may take right up to the last game of the season to know their seeding and their opponent, and it is starting to feel like it’s taking forever to get there.
Well, in terms of the Penguins’s hopes for home ice in the first round, last night’s action did not help. The Penguins now sit in third place in the Metro Division after the Islanders regulation win in Winnipeg. Pittsburgh is now two points behind the Islanders and five behind the Capitals who won in regulation at Carolina. The Hurricanes sit four points behind the Penguins and just one point in front of the Blue Jackets and Canadiens in the Wild Card race. Columbus’ 6-2 win over the Canadiens put the Blue Jackets back into the second Wild Card spot by virtue of having more regulation wins; Columbus also has a game in hand on Montreal, so Columbus is very much in the driver’s seat. Here’s the breakdown:
M1: Washington Capitals, 100 points (78 games played)
M2: New York Islanders, 97 points (78GP)
M3: Pittsburgh Penguins, 95 points (77GP)
M4;WC1: Carolina Hurricanes, 91 points (77GP)
M5;WC2: Columbus Blue Jackets, 90 points (77GP)
A4: Montreal Canadiens, 90 points (78GP)
Tonight’s slate of games is mostly important for the Western Conference playoff races. Of greatest importance is the Arizona/Colorado matchup: the Avalanche are two points in front of the Coyotes for the second Wild Card, so an Arizona win would put the two teams in a virtual tie, though the Coyotes would go ahead due to having more regulation wins. The Minnesota Wild need the Coyotes to lose in conjunction with a win at Vegas to keep their playoff hopes alive as the Wild sit two points behind Arizona. A Nashville loss and a St. Louis Blues win at the Rangers would bring St. Louis in a virtual tie with the Predators for second in the Central Division,