The Eastern Conference became even more of a logjam last night, and the race for the two wild-card spots has reached a fever pitch. The Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings currently hold the conference's final two playoff spots with 80 points, but the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs are right there with them with 80 points as well.
It would take a Toronto Maple Leafs-esque collapse to push the Pittsburgh Penguins out of the Metropolitan Division's No. 1 spot, and with an eight-point lead over the third-place Montreal Canadiens in the East, it seems safe to assume that the Penguins will finish as the No. 2 seed since they trail the Boston Bruins by seven points.
From a speculative standpoint, which of the four teams that are fighting for the final two spots should Pittsburgh be cheering for? There's no such thing as an easy series in the playoffs, but there is such a thing as an easier series.
Let's start with the "if the playoffs started today" scenario: the Penguins against the Blue Jackets.
While the team isn't a traditional powerhouse, this is the least favorable matchup for Pittsburgh for a number of reasons. In terms of five-on-five goals for/against, Columbus is right on top of the Penguins: The former's ratio is 1.06, while the latter sports a 1.07.
That doesn't spell disaster by any means. It's just that the two teams are surprisingly close when it comes to five-on-five play. Pittsburgh's league-leading power play could be a big difference maker, but we've seen the Penguins go dry on the man advantage before. Counting on those goals could be costly against a feisty, north-south Blue Jackets squad.
Stylistically, Pittsburgh would simply have to play harder minutes than they would against a team like the Capitals. Washington is a team that the Penguins can run and gun against since the Capitals are among the NHL's worst when it comes to shot prevention.
Washington is also one of the NHL's worst teams in terms of lead protection—a skill that is essential in the playoffs.
So if it comes down to either Columbus or Washington, it should be clear which team the Penguins should be rooting for. Tack on the fact that Pittsburgh swept their season series against Alex Ovechkin and Co., and they're a preferable matchup.
This isn't a two-horse race though. There are four horses all neck and neck coming around the final bend, and the Detroit Red Wings simply refuse to fade into the pack. With a two-decade-plus playoff streak on the line, that shouldn't surprise anyone.
What is surprising is the fact that they've managed to stay competitive without Henrik Zetterberg or Pavel Datsyuk. For the second season in a row, the Red Wings are receiving a heroic individual performance that is pushing them into the postseason. Last year it was Zetterberg. Now, it's Gustav Nyquist.
That Detroit has managed to stay competitive despite a rash of injuries is a testament to the depth that the organization has. A quick glance at their games played leaders suggests that it's actually a small miracle. Despite that, the Red Wings in their current form are a team that Pittsburgh could beat.
Looking beyond them would result in a first-round exit. Talk to the Anaheim Ducks if you don't believe that. An attentive Pittsburgh squad is capable of downing Detroit in their current form. That is, without Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Stephen Weiss, Jonathan Ericsson and Justin Abdelkader.
If any number of those players returns and is 100 percent in time for the playoffs though? That changes things dramatically and would make the Red Wings a remarkably dangerous wild-card seed that would be trending in the right direction.
That stands in stark contrast to the Maple Leafs—a team that seems to be caving in before our very eyes. They're in the midst of a six-game losing streak and have gone from potential top-three seed to bubble team in less than two weeks.
Journalists like Jonathan Willis and James Mirtle have been cautious about the Maple Leafs all season— even when they were winning—because of a handful of unsustainable numbers. It seemed that the squad spent a lot of time standing around and watching Jonathan Bernier make remarkable save after remarkable save, and as such, they are among the worst Corsi-for teams in the NHL, according to ExtraSkater.com.
How bad is Toronto in terms of Corsi-for? Only the Buffalo Sabres and Edmonton Oilers posses a worse percentage. That's quite telling, and it makes the Maple Leafs the team that Pittsburgh should absolutely be cheering for as the season comes to a close.
In short: avoid Columbus and possibly Detroit. Hope for the Capitals and pray to the hockey gods for Toronto to suddenly turn things around.
All stats appear courtesy of NHL.com unless otherwise noted, and are accurate through games played on March 26.
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