Pittsburgh Penguins: Looking at Potential Playoff Matchups

PITTSBURGH, PA - FEBRUARY 15: Evgeni Malkin /

With 24 games left in the season, the Pittsburgh Penguins have finally found their game in 2018.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are 8-1-1 in their last ten and are on a five-game winning streak, most recently thumping the Columbus Blue Jackets 5-2.

Evgeni Malkin is tearing up the league—he’s second in the league in goals (33), third in power play goals (13), and has had 19 goals since the new year alone. Sidney Crosby is fast getting over his scoring slump and has accrued 31 points since Jan. 1. Phil Kessel has been his usual consistent self, and has 66 points in 61 games so far this season. As a result, the Pittsburgh Penguins are in a comfortable playoff spot at second in the Metropolitan Division, only one point behind the Washington Capitals.

So who might the Penguins face in the playoffs as they seek a third straight Stanley Cup win?

A Familiar Foe in the Flyers

If the regular season ended today, the Pittsburgh Penguins would face their cross-state nemesis, the Philadelphia Flyers, in the first round. The Flyers have had a difficult past few seasons, to say the least. Ever since losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals, Philly has missed the playoffs three times and failed to make it past the second round when they did qualify.

At a quarter of the way through this season, the Flyers were dead last in the Metropolitan (although to be fair, at that time the Penguins were 7 out of 8 in the division). But Philly has turned things around since then and now sit just two points behind the Pens.

Playoff series between the Pens and Flyers have been notoriously hostile, including a rather memorable series in 2012 and the infamous fight between Daniel Carcillo and Max Talbot in 2009.

In the all-time matchup, the Flyers actually lead the Pens 4-2 in playoff series wins.

However, the Flyers just lost their starting goaltender, Brian Elliott, for at least five to six weeks due to core muscle surgery. They’ve also recently lost Wayne Simmonds to injury; he’s day-to-day with an upper body injury. Simmonds has had 20 goals and 37 points so far this season.

The Penguins are the better team (not that I’m biased or anything), but only when they keep their emotions in check. If they can do that—and they’ve been much better under head coach Mike Sullivan—the Flyers should pose little threat to the Pens’ Cup quest.

The (Formerly) Red-Hot Lightning

Nikita Kucherov leads the league in points with 78, and the Tampa Bay Lightning sit atop the league standings with 40 wins and 83 points. Tampa got off to an exceptional start, blowing past every other team in the league to get to the top. Former Rocket Richard trophy winner Steven Stamkos has 24 goals this season, making him 27th in the league in goals.

But for all that, the Bolts are a modest 6-4 in their last ten games.

Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh Penguins /

Pittsburgh Penguins

The Lightning came awfully close to spoiling the Pens’ Cup run in 2016, pushing the Pens to a one-goal game seven.

Tampa has consistently posed a threat to the Pens because they play a similar, speedy style of hockey and are deep on offense. Youthful netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy (only two months younger than Matt Murray) was also incredible against the Pens in 2016, stepping in when Ben Bishop was injured and posting a .925 save percentage and 2.76 GAA. He has continued to be dominant this season, putting up a .928 save percentage and 2.33 GAA. But the Penguins pulled off that game seven win with the help of their own youth in goalie Murray and then-rookie Bryan Rust, who scored both goals in the 2-1 victory.

The Pens are fortunate that they still have young players who have been contributing, most notably in Jake Guentzel. The 23-year-old NHL sophomore has 19 goals and 33 points thus far this year, and led all Penguins in goals (13) and game-winning goals (5) in the 2016-17 playoffs. The Pens will count on Guentzel to have a similar performance in the 2017-18 playoffs if they want to three-peat.

The Surprising Bruins

Like the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Boston Bruins have been on a roll lately, with 16 wins and a league-leading 34 points in 2018. They’re third in the league in goals for and have the third-fewest goals against since Jan. 1. The Bruins are just one point behind the Lightning for the top spot in the Atlantic Division (and the league), and are 8-2 in their last ten games. Those are pretty surprising stats for a team that missed the playoffs entirely for two years in a row and then was eliminated in the first round last year.

But the Bruins have a new head coach in Bruce Cassidy—who took over as the bench boss  this year after longtime coach Claude Julien was fired—and have enjoyed stellar play from their many young players.

The last time the Pens faced the B’s in the playoffs was in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, when the Penguins were embarrassingly swept. But that was five years ago, which is a long time in the NHL. It’s also worth noting that while the Bruins have lost few games so far in 2018, one of those losses was to the Pens (a 6-5 OT victory).

Next: Who's Who of Penguins Trade Rumors

At the beginning of the season, it seemed highly unlikely that the Penguins would be able to make any attempt at a third Stanley Cup in a row. But the Pens are starting to hit their stride, and if  they can keep it up, few teams in the Eastern Conference (or league) will slow them down.