An essential site to bookmark this time of year is the comprehensive Sports Club Stats, which provides daily updates of statistical probabilities for professional teams worldwide.
My first experience with Sports Club Stats came in 2009, as I watched the Pittsburgh Penguins’ chances to make the playoffs go from well south of 50 percent in February to virtually guaranteed after a spectacular March under interim coach Dan Bylsma. This year’s March was even better, but it didn’t have a dramatic impact on the Pens’ postseason probability, which was above 90 percent before the 15-game winning streak started.
The Penguins and their fans can be thankful to avoid the stress of the playoff chase, but there is still a significant amount of uncertainty regarding Pittsburgh’s first-round postseason opponent. According to Sports Club Stats, five teams have a better than 1 percent chance of starting the second season at Consol Energy Center.
With the Penguins practically locked into the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed, projecting their first Stanley Cup foe is essentially a matter of determining who will finish eighth. To that end, we can probably eliminate the Washington Capitals, who lead the weak Southeast Division by four points over Winnipeg, giving them dibs on the East’s third seed. Sports Club Stats gives the Caps a 4.4 percent chance to drop to eighth, since a season-ending slump will likely knock them completely out of the playoff field.
Factoring out the Capitals, that leaves us the Islanders, Rangers, Ottawa and Winnipeg as feasible first-round roadblocks. The Isles have the best chance (40.7 percent) to square off against the Penguins, with the Rangers at 23.9 percent and the Sens and Jets just above 14 percent each.
A matchup with the Islanders would likely frighten most longtime Penguins followers, given that New York has won all three playoff series between the franchises in painful fashion. The Isles rallied from a 3-0 series deficit in 1975, stole a winner-take-all Game 5 in 1982 and ended the Penguins’ run at three straight NHL titles in 1993.
In more recent – and relevant – history, the Penguins won three of four against the Isles this season and four of six in 2011-12. Pittsburgh’s record against the crosstown Rangers is 8-3 over the past two years, with similar results against Winnipeg (5-2) over that span. The Pens have broken even with Ottawa in six meetings since October 2011, with one more coming April 22.
We can dig further into matchups once we get closer to the end of the month, but probabilities and predictions will have to do until then. With six games left in the regular season and the Penguins’ playoff seeding all but locked in, the future is just as interesting as the present.