In remembrance of the late Ashley Gallant, originator of “Lacing Up,” Matt Paul, Joshua Neal, and, at times, guest writers will hold a week-long email discussion, which will be published regularly at FF. If you have any topics you would like to see us discuss, or if you would like to be a guest in our series, please let us know through the comments section below or on our Contact page, linked at the top of FF.

Matt Paul: Josh, I think I speak for both of us when I apologize to our readers for being MIA with “Lacing Up” since late last month. But we’re back and hopefully on a weekly schedule. With that out of the way, let’s get to business.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have four games left as I type this (three by the time we’ve published), and several possibilities exist for their first round opponent. Currently, the New York Rangers sit in the eighth seed, but the Ottawa Senators, New York Islanders, and Winnipeg Jets also remain possibilities.

To get started, Josh what are the most and least likely opponents for the Penguins?

Joshua Neal: Well, the funny thing is that if you had asked me this question a week ago, I’d have had a different answer. I fully expected the Islanders’ hot streak to end and for them to end up just barely hanging onto the 8th spot. Now, it looks very realistic for them to not just make the playoffs, but to perhaps even snatch the 5th seed. They’ll likely go in as the 6th seed.

With the Penguins having clinched the #1 overall seed, they know they’ll be playing the #8 overall seed. The Los Angeles Kings won the Cup from the #8 seed just last year, so it doesn’t necessarily mean a cakewalk first round for the Penguins. The two most likely candidates for the Penguins to play in the first round look like the New York Rangers and the Ottawa Senators. They’re both very good teams, as are just about all teams that find a way to make the playoffs.

Given that the Penguins lost only once to the Rangers in five meetings in the regular season and that they swept the Senators this year, who would you rather see in the playoffs if you had to pick from those two? Or do you think it will be a different opponent?

Matt: Well, according to Sports Club Stats, the most likely 8th seed is the Senators at 33%, followed by the Islanders at 31%, and then the Rangers at 27%. The Jets have a 7% chance, while the Maple Leafs and Capitals each have a 1% chance.

So, mathematically, it looks like the Senators will be the team. I can handle that, given that they’re somewhat injured (though getting much healthier in a hurry), and playing well above their talent level. Then again, that might be what makes them scary: they’re playing well despite having injuries to prominent players. Add in Craig Anderson, and they are quite dangerous. So, actually, I’ve talked myself out of my previous statement. I’m not so sure I’m okay with them.

The Rangers, though, would seem ideal. For starters, the Penguins have owned Henrik Lundqvist throughout his Hall-of-Fame caliber career. And, as you said, the Penguins have played the Rangers quite well this season, despite their considerable starpower.

To me, what makes the Rangers ideal is the heavy weight of pressure and high expectations placed on their collective shoulders and their relative inability to succeed. Can they handle a powerhouse like Pittsburgh right out of the gate?

Josh: I’m not sure, but their personnel are precisely what scare me. The fact that the Penguins dominated the Rangers all season with the talent that plays there makes me worry about the law of averages catching the Pens. Lundqvist hasn’t fared well against the Penguins, but he is a goalie with the capability to steal a game or two in a playoff series. Tortorella is a top-notch coach even if you can’t stand the guy. The Rangers may have traded Marian Gaborik, but the grit they added make them a big, tough looking team for the different style of play the playoffs call for.

Guys like Ryane Clowe, Derrick Brassard, and the already existing tough guys the Rangers put on the ice (Callahan, Boyle, Girardi, McDonagh, et. al) make them a matchup I’d rather avoid if I’m from Pittsburgh. Then again, perhaps playing a team with that kind of playoff-style roster would be a good test out of the gate. Or maybe the Rangers just scare me a bit because much like last year’s champion LA Kings, the Rangers are a team that underachieved literally all season, and then made a few moves at the deadline to get tougher.

Ottawa, to me, is the team I’d like to play, if only because it has almost become tradition. The Penguins have played the Senators in the first round 3 times in the past several years, winning the two most recent. The Penguins have played extraordinarily well in Canada this year as well. They are a team that because of injuries has been forced to play younger guys. From an experience and grittiness standpoint, there’s a big chance that while the Ottawa youngsters get starstruck and literally struck by guys like Morrow and Iginla, the Penguins jump out to a series lead and put it in cruise control.

I’ve noticed you didn’t add in the Islanders, who along with the Leafs are making their first trips to the playoffs in some considerable time. They could be first-round opponents as well. Who would you rather have out of those two, and why?

Matt: The Islanders are a team that scares me – and for opposite reasons I mentioned of the Rangers. With the Isles, you have a team that had no pre-season expectations, has no current pressure, and has no idea what they’re getting into with the playoffs.

They’re too inexperienced to understand that they should lose to a team like Pittsburgh, which could result in an upset for the ages. So, for that reason, I’d choose the Maple Leafs as a better option between the two.

In fact, quite honestly, I think the Leafs would be my preference of all possible teams, though they seem least likely. With all that said, Josh, this conversation reminds me of an old saying: “Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.”

You get the last word…

Josh: When you boil down where the “season” started, not knowing if we were going to get hockey at all, then look at where we are now and the team that we root for performing so well, it’s easy to get caught up. Sure, the Penguins need to gameplan against who they have to play, but that same team will have to gameplan and try to play against the Penguins.

With the talent, leadership, experience, and determination that this team has either built, acquired, or found, this team just seems like something special. There is work to be done, and there always will be, but this year’s team entering the playoffs makes me nervous for a different reason than years past. This team is more dynamic, grittier, faster, and more experienced.

The Penguins will be in the playoffs, and no matter who draws them in the first round, we should be in for quite a ride.