How do the Penguins Stack Up Against Other Eastern Conference Playoff Teams?

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By next Friday night, all of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ regular season games will have been completed. Soon thereafter, we’ll learn who, when, and where the Penguins will be playing in the postseason beginning Monday, May 2nd.

Making the postseason for the 16th consecutive season cannot be overstated. It’s the longest current streak in all of professional sports. However, one can’t help but think that maybe the Penguins enter these playoffs as the bottom-feeders of the playoff teams.

Pittsburgh’s issues, as of late, are plenty. They’ve lost their number one goaltender indefinitely. Their secondary scoring has dried up. Most of their top-paid defensive players suddenly look lost and lack confidence. This is not an ideal time for all of this negativity to peak it’s ugly head.

On the bright side, Sidney Crosby is still playing at a level that no-mid 30’s player should be able to play. On almost any given night, he’s the best player on the ice for both teams. Kris Letang continues to age like fine wine even though his play lately has been a bit more careless than it has at most points this season.

Knowing all of this, how do the Pittsburgh Penguins, winners of three Stanley Cups in the last 14 years, stack up with the rest of the Eastern Conference despite an aging core?

Let’s start with their in-division playoff foes.

While not every playoff spot has mathematically been locked up, the eight playoff teams are a mere formality just waiting on the math to finally add up.

Out of the Penguins’ Metropolitan Division, the Carolina Hurricanes, New York Rangers, and Washington Capitals will be entering the playoffs.

Carolina Hurricanes

The cream of the crop is Carolina. They’re a fun, young, fast team that has the makings of being a Cup contender for years to come if they can juggle salary cap concerns. They aren’t littered with top-10 players but they have a lot of near elite players and depth to go with it.

Sebastian Aho (76 points), Andrei Svechnikov (67 points), and Teuvo Teravainen (60 points) are doing the heavy lifting for Carolina. Tony DeAngelo, a talented young defenseman who had proven to be a locker room cancer for the Rangers, finds himself spear-heading a Carolina team destined to make a nice run in these upcoming playoffs.

I won’t name every player for Carolina but if you just take a scroll down their roster on any website, you’ll start to realize a lot of the names are solid pieces from top-to-bottom that any team would love to employ.

The biggest question now for the Canes is the status of starting goaltender Frederik Anderson. Anderson looks to have a lower-body injury but the nature and time frame of his injury hasn’t been released yet. Antti Raanta is the backup in Carolina and he’s been perfectly serviceable in that role.

It’s much like the Penguins though. Everyone knows that hot goaltending can carry a team in the playoffs, while cold goaltending can be their downfall. Raanta potentially having to shoulder the load could be the downfall for Carolina.

New York Rangers

The Pittsburgh Penguin killers.

After seeing New York conquer Pittsburgh three separate times in less than two weeks, not much confidence can be had about having to see the Blueshirts in a seven-game playoff series.

Then again, the slightest sign of doubt in a Mike Sullivan-led hockey team usually leads to a surprise outcome on the other end. If this is Pittsburgh’s first round opponent, could the Penguins win in an underdog role? Much of that will depend on the play of Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin.

Shesterkin made some enemies in Pittsburgh by waving goodbye to the Penguins as he sent them off the ice in their final regular season meeting. Shesterkin is likely the favorite to win the Vezina but has seen his play slightly dip from the heights he was reaching early on in the season.

New York presents a threat up front simply because they’re a faster team than the Penguins. They even remind me a lot of the previous Penguin Cup teams because they skate circles around a Penguins team who thinks they’re still that young, fast team.

Chris Kreider has 50 goals on the season. Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad have 20 goal seasons. So the Rangers have plenty of other depth scoring.

It’s a dangerous team that the Penguins will struggle with but weirder things have certainly happened.

Washington Capitals

Here is where things get hairy. This Capitals team would’ve been considered dead in the water a few weeks ago. They just feel like an old, stale team that benefitted from a weak bottom half of their division.

However, over recent weeks, they’ve found a goal scoring boost and are putting it on bad teams. They’ve also lost games convincingly to playoff bound teams. They might just be the equivalent to the Penguins in a lot of ways.

Washington does have a bit of a goalie controversy though. They don’t have a clear number one after both Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek have struggled to put a form grasp on the notion. Samsonov has 35 games started while Vanecek has 36. Anytime a team has two goalies playing identical, you don’t really have a goalie you trust.

They still have an offense capable of hanging in the playoffs though. Alex Ovechkin is still doing it with 47 goals this season. Evgeny Kuznetsov, John Carlson, and Tom Wilson continue to lead the way as usual for Washington.

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Now, we head into the opposite division where the other four teams will reside from.

Florida Panthers

This is the ultimate test in the East. There's no doubt the Florida Panthers are much like the Hurricanes but only better.

Already with 114 points, the Panthers have won 13 of their last 15 including ten straight. They're getting very hot at the absolute right time.

They have six players with 50+ points including Jonathan Huberdeau who has 108 points in 75 games and will certainly be in the MVP conversation. They acquired Claude Giroux at the trade deadline and he has 16 points in 13 games with Florida, but only two goals. Old friend, Patric Hornqvist, also resides in Florida's bottom-six.

Making them even scarier, the Panthers have one of the better goaltending tandems in the NHL. Sergei Bobrovsky, someone the Pens have tortured over the years, and Spencer Knight have been a large part of the Panthers' surge. Neither one has been other-worldly, but they've both been very good in the capacity that they've played in. However, Bobrovsky's playoff record isn't encouraging and Knight is all of 20-years old so there will be questions on how that will all hold up.

However, until someone takes them down, you have to figure that the Panthers are primed for a deep run unless their goaltending fails them.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Here we are again. Don't we love a good Maple Leafs team looking strong as we head towards the playoffs?

Well, this is another classic case. Auston Matthews continues to score at a clip that might make him the greatest American scorer of all-time with 58 goals(!) in 70 games. That is ridiculous.

The rest of the core is really buying in this year it seems too. Mitch Marner (94 points), William Nylander (74 points), and John Tavares (74 points) have carried the offense that could be the best one in the playoffs if every one shows up. Michael Bunting has unexpectedly pitched in for 23 goals on the season. Morgan Reilly is the anchor of the defense again this season.

But it wouldn't quite be the postseason if we weren't questioning the Leafs' goaltending.

Jack Campbell, Erik Kallgren, and Petr Mrazek have all pitched in on the goaltending front for the Leafs this season. Campbell is the guy there but he has a 2.71 goals against average and a .912 save percentage. Those aren't pedestrian numbers but those are not the type of numbers that say "bonafide number one goaltender" either.

The Maple Leafs won't suffer a shortage of goals but they may have some trouble keeping them out of their net.

Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning became the second team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions in the salary cap era with championship titles in each of the past two seasons. Some people weren't impressed with neither being a full 82-game schedule. Many people weren't fans of the Lightning holding Nikita Kucherov out until the playoffs started to avoid the salary cap last season, either.

Regardless, they don't ask how, they ask how many.

Tampa Bay hasn't been as lethal this season. Or maybe the rest of the East is just that much stronger this time around. Either way, Tampa will have a chance to three-peat which would be unprecedented in the salary cap era in the NHL.

With limited cap space at the deadline, the Lightning spent two first-round draft picks on forward Brandon Hagel. The move has paid off to a whopping three points - all goals - in 15 games.

That doesn't mean they still don't possess elite talent. Steven Stamkos is over a point-per-game. Victor Hedman is still an awesome defenseman that plays at an elite level offensively. They also have other awesome pieces like Alex Killorn, Brayden Point, Kucherov, Anthony Cirelli and plenty more.

In the blue paint, the Lightning have two wonderful pieces in Andrei Vasilevskiy and Brian Elliott who have played great behind an awesome defense core.

Don't count the Lightning out. They've quietly had another high-level season and they deserve to be seen as legitimate threats to win the Stanley Cup yet again.

Boston Bruins

Last but not least, we have the Boston Bruins, a team that never goes away.

Boston feels like a top-heavy team heading into this year's playoffs. They have eight players with 15+ goals on the season. However, nobody else on the team has more than eight outside of that group. Of course, "that group" includes the likes of Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, and Taylor Hall.

Charlie McAvoy spearheads the defensive core as he has for years now and has 52 points in 72 games.

But the most fun part of the Bruins is ultimately their 1A-1B goaltending tandem of Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman. If you haven't seen their hug after winning games, you're doing it wrong. It's one of the more fun things in hockey and will brighten anyone's day.

Most guys competing for playing time would shy away from each other. Instead, Ullmark and Swayman have clearly embraced each other and feed off of each other's success towards the common goal of winning the Stanley Cup.

The top-heavy scoring is very comparative to the Penguins. But with two goaltenders clearly having fun and competing friendly against each other, don't discount the Bruins as a team to make a potential run.

So what does all of this mean for the Penguins?

I'm going to rank these teams in order of how I see them heading into the playoffs.

1. Panthers
2. Hurricanes
3. Maple Leafs
4. Lightning
5. Rangers
6. Bruins
7. Penguins
8. Capitals

I think everyone is competing to beat the Panthers and Hurricanes and they're on a crash course for one helluva playoff series. The Maple Leafs, Lightning, and Rangers make up the tier of teams that are all fast, can score at will and certainly could give those top two teams a run for their money in a playoff series despite their underdog status.

I have the Bruins being the "best of the worst" so to say with a more reliable goaltending situation than both Pittsburgh and Washington, especially with Jarry's injury. All three of these teams have playoff pedigree over the years and could give their first-round matchup more trouble than most anticipate.

Just as an aside, I'm excited to start really gearing up for playoff hockey. Nothing in sports, and I mean nothing, has been more enjoyable for me than the Penguins playing in the postseason. Playoff hockey just hits different.

Regardless of what happens, let's enjoy what really could be the last ride for these Penguins. With each passing day, it really feels like this is the final lap for this core. Take it all in.

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