There are five weeks to go in the regular season, but the Pittsburgh Penguins’ next seven days will have a distinctly playoff-like feel.
If you like home-and-home sets against rivals, tip your helmet to the NHL schedule-makers, because the Penguins will face their two most-despised opponents in back-to-back fashion this week.
The showdown series starts Monday night in Washington, with a return leg against the Capitals in Pittsburgh on Tuesday; the Pens then battle the Flyers on Saturday and Sunday under the same road-home format.
Further enhancing the emotion: the Penguins could feasibly face either Washington or Philadelphia in the first round of the Stanley Cup tournament. It’s not too early to start thinking about postseason matchups, and with the Pens nearly assured of winning the Metropolitan Division, they will face one of the Eastern Conference’s two wild card teams come mid-April.
Looking at the NHL’s wild-card standings, there are no fewer than 10 teams that could find themselves opposite the Penguins in the first round.
As of now, Pittsburgh would face Tampa Bay in a rematch of their 2011 best-of-seven, although the Blue Jackets, Flyers, Rangers, Red Wings, Capitals, Maple Leafs and Canadiens are all within four points of that top wild-card berth. New Jersey and Ottawa are a little further back, but still can’t be factored out.
Following an intense California trip that saw them split decisions with the Sharks and Ducks, the pace of play doesn’t figure to be any slower against the hungry Capitals and Flyers this week. Washington and Philadelphia can’t match the quality Pittsburgh faced on the West Coast, but a motivation gap can make up part of that difference.
No matter whether the Penguins face the Caps or Flyers in the postseason, this week will serve as a timely primer. There are 19 games to go until then, but the build-up for the playoffs is already underway.
It’s probably too soon to prepare for particular opponents, although this week could double as a little scouting work, too.
Tonight’s Game: Penguins (42-17-4, 88 points – 1st Metropolitan) vs. Capitals (30-25-10, 70 points – 5th Metro) at Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.
Faceoff: 7 p.m. ET
TV: Root Sports Pittsburgh (local), NHL Network (national)
Radio: 105.9 The X
Following Monday’s optional skate, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said No. 2 goalie Jeff Zatkoff will get his second start in three games. The rookie faded late in Thursday’s 5-3 loss at San Jose, although he did deny 42 shots. New trade acquisition (and Penguins playoff nemesis) Jaroslav Halak will man the crease for the Caps.
Forward Brian Gibbons and defenseman Robert Bortuzzo, both of whom missed Saturday’s game in Anaheim with injuries, are questionable for tonight. Beau Bennett and Chris Conner skated with the team Monday morning, but they are still seeking medical clearance to return to game action.