Scoreboard Watching

A 3-2 overtime loss at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday didn’t put a huge dent in their playoff hopes, and now the Pittsburgh Penguins get a very convenient two-day break in the schedule before they face a final gauntlet in the last week of the 2023-24 regular season schedule. Three straight home games, including Thursday’s immense contest with the Detroit Red Wings, capped off with what could very likely be the playoff-clinching game between Pittsburgh and the hosting New York Islanders next Wednesday. However, tonight there are some critical games that we will be watching closely to see how much work the Penguins will have to put in over the next week. First and foremost, here’s a look at the relevant segment of the Eastern Conference standings:

Just so we’re clear, the Islanders are currently third in the Metropolitan Division while the Detroit Red Wings are the second Wild Card team in the East. The Tampa Bay Lightning are the first Wild Card team by a good enough margin that I don’t think they’ll be passed by anyone in this list. Therefore the playoff race in the Eastern Conference is down to two spots: the second Wild Card, and third in the Metro Division. Also worth noting is that Pittsburgh currently would win the tiebreaker in standings points with any of these teams except for New Jersey, thanks to the Penguins winning more games in regulation (the Devils have one more regulation win than Pittsburgh, but they’re also very far behind).

The most consequential game on tonight’s schedule for Pittsburgh is Detroit hosting the Washington Capitals. Although the Penguins could still snag the three spot in the Metropolitan Division (setting up a perhaps more favorable first round match with the Carolina Hurricanes), it’s not worth dismissing the Red Wings getting a substantial lead on Pittsburgh for the second Wild Card spot. A win for the Red Wings tonight would give them a two point advantage over the Penguins, forcing Pittsburgh into a situation which would require a regulation win against Detroit on Thursday. (As we have seen, the Penguins are not so good at winning after regulation anyway.) However, a regulation win for Washington would also give the Capitals a two point advantage in the arguably more important race for third in the Metro, and Pittsburgh has no more games against Washington so they wouldn’t be able to control that situation. I think I would be satisfied most with a regulation win for the Red Wings, mostly because of that regulation wins tiebreaker, but it’s not an ideal circumstance for the Penguins any way you slice it.

One thing we can be sure of is that we’ll be rooting for the Rangers to win on the road tonight against the Islanders. A regulation win for the Islanders would see them three points ahead of Pittsburgh for third in the Metro Division, so anything less than two points for Patrick Roy’s squad would be welcome for the Penguins. Feeding into the hope even more, the Rangers have the third-best road record in the NHL, while the Islanders have the fewest home wins of any team currently in playoff position, so on paper it looks like good news for Pittsburgh. However, the Rangers have little to play for at this point, with their five point lead over Carolina for first in the division, so it’s not like this is a critical game for the Broadway Blueshirts. It could also turn out to be a playoff preview if the Islanders land in the second Wild Card spot, so perhaps the Rangers will see it as an opportunity to tune up against a potential first round opponent. Definitely worth keeping an eye on.

At 2-5-3, the Philadelphia Flyers have one of the worst records in the League over their last ten games: only Calgary, Anaheim, and San Jose have as few wins as Philadelphia. Their swoon could not have come at a worse time in the season, as they were third in the Metropolitan Division less than two weeks ago and now they are clinging tenuously to their playoff hopes. One of their last remaining saving graces includes tonight’s trip to Montreal to face one of the worst home teams in the League, the Canadiens. A win tonight would put the Flyers firmly back in third in the Metro Division, but they will be one of the few teams which have only three games left, so Philadelphia is now desperately looking elsewhere for help to get back to the playoffs.

Less critical but still worth keeping an eye on are the Sabres and Devils, as they are approaching their last chance saloon for making the playoffs as well. Unfortunately for both teams they are facing long odds tonight as Buffalo visits the hottest team in the League as well as one of the best in the Dallas Stars, while New Jersey hosts Toronto as the Maple Leafs play in the second game of a back-to-back. Neither team has a lot of hope as they are well behind their Wild Card rivals, which is surprising given the preseason predictions that they might both have been playoff teams this year. Now they’re with the Flyers hoping that someone in front of them slips up at least a couple of times from now until the end of the season.