I'm just wrapping up an interesting night at Consol Energy Center, after watching the Penguins 4-2 win over the already playoff-dead New Jersey Devils; interesting mostly due to the scores surging in from around the Eastern Conference of the NHL and the realization that an Atlantic Division title still up for grabs.
Earlier today it looked like the 4th and 5th seeds were set as the Pens and Tampa Lightning in some order, but with Philly stumbling tonight (their 4th straight loss and 6th defeat in their last 14-games against non-playoff teams) the Flyers have lost hold of the #1 seed in the East (it now belongs to Washington) and have given the Pens' hope of grabbing #2 seed.
Philly has games remaining Friday at Buffalo, and Saturday vs. the New York Islanders. With the Sabers in must-win mode and ready to welcome 80+ alumni to an emotional home finale, there's now a real chance Pittsburgh wins out while the Flyers lose another one, giving the Pens a new first round playoff opponent.
This would be huge, particularly if it's the NY Rangers as that opponent; New York's talented winger Ryan Callahan was lost for the season last night thanks to a Zdeno Chara shot off his ankle. That could be a more crushing blow to New York than even the Pens playing without Sidney Crosby, as the Rangers now have to rely on Marian Gaborik and a Callahan-less Brandon Dubinsky line for their offense. Yes, goalie Henrik Lundqvist is elite and makes a series at the Garden dangerous, but the Rangers are now the Penguins ideal first round opponent because they have offensive issues and little time to adjust.
Currently the Rangers sit in 8th place, though, and although their remaining games are home affairs with lowly Atlanta and the Devils, Buffalo could well hold them off for 7th place (the Sabers travel to Columbus after Friday's Philly tilt).
Buffalo, to me, is the worst possible Pens draw. The new Fighting Terry Pegulas are 7-1-2 in their past ten games and just halted the East's hottest team in TBay by a score of 4-2. Thomas Vanek had a hat trick in the game, giving him 31-goals for the year. Drew Stafford, Tim Connolly, Brad Boyes, Tyler Ennis, and Jason Pominville give them plenty enough offensive punch, and they have a belief that reminds me of 2010 Montreal. Even with the status of goalie Ryan Miller's collarbone up in the air, I would fear a first round Pittsburgh – Buffalo series if I'm the Pens (without Sid).
Either way, kudos to the NHL for a terrific product and a hell of a meaningful regular season wire-to-wire. And major credit to the Penguins for another win to keep a division crown in the hunt, and first-round home ice advantage closer to their grasp.