Earlier this week, Will wrote about how the Penguins faced an uphill battle for a favorable playoff spot. And he was completely right about his justifications - losing to the Islanders really makes it difficult to overcome the deficit in the Metro, and the team needs to be more consistent so they can keep pace in the playoff race. But it's his premise that the team needs to move up in the division to get a favorable playoff spot that I disagree with, because by far the most favorable playoff spot for the Pittsburgh Penguins is the 1st wild card spot that flips them over to the Atlantic Division for the first two rounds of the playoffs.
Currently the Boston Bruins find themselves in first place in the Atlantic with 84 points in 69 games played, with the Florida Panthers (67 GP) and Tampa Bay Lightning (68 GP) right behind them with 83 points. It's too close to be able to tell who the Penguins would match up with in the 1st round, but does it really matter? The Rangers have been a match-up problem for the Pens in recent years, and after struggling earlier in the season Henrik Lundqvist is hitting his stride going into the playoffs. They've gone 12-6-0 since the start of February, and despite some underlying numbers that says they've been overachieving they haven't shown many signs of slowing down. They have the 2nd worst score-adjusted Corsi for of all the teams currently in the playoff picture at 48.6%, and they lead the league with a 102.5 PDO, which suggests that they've had more than their fair share of luck. But as we've all seen time and again before, having one of the elite goaltenders in the league allows the Rangers to cover up some of these issues, and a talented and hot goalie can make any team difficult to beat in a seven game series.
The New York Islanders are another team the Penguins have struggled against recently as they've only managed a 2-4-1 mark against them over the past two seasons. The Islanders have both a top 10 offense (2.85 GF/gm; 5th) and defense (2.45 GA/gm; 9th). They have a balanced team that provides scoring from all over the lineup, and the injury to Jaroslav Halak could be a blessing in disguise as Thomas Greiss has put up the better numbers on the season while the two have split play. Like the Rangers, the Islanders have also been on a hot streak lately, going 12-4-2 over the same time frame.
The only other likely 1st round opponent, outside the Washington Capitals, that would seem to be on the same level as the New York teams is the Tampa Bay Lightning, but they've been incredibly streaky lately and are currently in 3rd place in the Atlantic. The Lightning recently reeled off a 9 game winning streak, but only two of those wins came against teams currently in the playoff picture. They've since lost three straight, and they lost 4 out of 5 before starting the win streak, which itself followed a stretch of play where they won 9 of 10. They've shown flashes of the team that advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals last season, but like the Penguins consistency has been an issue for Tampa Bay, and there's a decent chance that the Pens wouldn't have to worry about the Lightning until the 2nd round anyways.
And the playoff picture on the whole is why finishing as the first wild card puts the Penguins in a much more favorable spot for making a playoff run. It can be debated who would be the more difficult 1st round match-up from among the Rangers, Islanders, and Lightning, but there's no debate that playing 2 of the 3 Atlantic Division teams in the first two rounds (Lightning, Panthers, Bruins) is going to be a much easier path to the Eastern Conference Finals than playing 2 of the 3 Metropolitan Division teams (Capitals, Rangers, Islanders). How far they go will matter as much on how the Penguins are playing as a team as it will their opponent, but with the roster starting to get healthy there's reason to be optimistic, though a lot of that optimism hinges on Evgeni Malkin's availability after leaving last night's game early with an injury. The Pens are second in the entire league since Mike Sullivan took over with a 54.7 SACF%. They're 6th in the league with a 54.2 GF% at 5-on-5 even strength during that time as well. Catching the Rangers and/or Islanders before the season's end would improve the team's perceived potential for success heading into the postseason, but securing the first wild card spot is going to be what actually gives the Penguins the best chance to make a deep playoff run.