Are the Pens Gearing Up or Down for the Stretch Run?

Harry How

19 games remain in the regular season. What is the team's outlook for the stretch run? Will the injuries finally do us in, or will the team find that extra gear to make the final push toward the playoffs?

The Pens have now played 63 games and only 19 remain in the regular season schedule. While TK-N has just posted the team's 3rd-quarter grades over the weekend, I wanted to take a look at the remaining schedule and gauge what we can expect in the home stretch.

The team has been decimated by injuries this season and, if anything, overachieved, winning nearly 70% of available points while losing 363 man-games to injury as of March 4. That's almost 100 more than the next team on the list, and many of those were to absolutely key players. Top-line RW Pascal Dupuis was lost for the season in December. Kris Letang and Paul Martin have missed long stretches, and it's doubtful at best whether Letang will see any action for the remainder of the season. Forward of the future Beau Bennett played all of 12 games this season.

Despite going 2-2-1 after the Olympic break, even a cursory look at the gamelogs is not very encouraging in terms of being outshot and outpossessed more often than not. At the mid-point of the Anaheim game, Deryk Engelland had half of the Pens' whopping 4 shots on net and the only goal, yet we escaped with 2 points.

In a way, rather than gearing up for the playoffs, the Pens seem to be gearing down. Key players such as Sidney Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury have played ridiculous minutes. Crosby looks really, really tired after having played every game this season plus every game in the Olympics. While we have built a bit of a cushion and are in a better position than any of the other Metro teams fighting for a limited pool of available points, the old adage of having to play one's best hockey entering the stretch run doesn't seem to apply here.

REMAINING REGULAR SEASON SCHEDULE

Here is the Penguins schedule. Five weeks and 19 games remaining. Let's look at it week-by-week:

Week 1 (starting today): Home-and-home vs. WAS, home-and-home vs. PHI (advanced stats: WAS; PHI)

This could very well be the most important week of the five that remain. Neither the Flyers nor the Capitals are assured of making the playoffs and they will play like desperate teams. We really don't want to flip 4 points to anyone, but to these two least of all. In the past week the Caps have improved the team considerably. They upgraded their goaltending by exchanging Michal Neuvirth and Rostislav Klesla for Jaroslav Halak, and traded a 4th-round pick for Dustin Penner. They also add Evgeny Kuznetsov, who, while new to the NHL, has already played 210 games for KHL's Traktor Chelyabinsk. The Flyers have essentially swapped Andrej Meszaros for Andrew MacDonald, which can only ever be a net gain.

Week 2 (starting 3/17): Home vs. DAL, TAM, STL, away at DET (advanced stats: DAL; DET; TAM; STL)

Three home games against Stars, Lightning and Blues with a quick visit to Detroit in between. We lost in Dallas fairly miserably. Kari Lehtonen suffered a serious concussion and it's possible he won't be back by then. Despite all of that, Dallas has a reasonable chance to push for the last WC spot in the West. The Red Wings will be desperate. They might not make the playoffs, although I will believe that if and when it actually happens. Tampa has replaced Marty St. Louis with a decade-younger Ryan Callahan, and Stammer will be much closer to 100%. The loss in St. Louis was a close game, but the Blues were a top-3 team before they added Ryan Miller and Steve Ott. Going 2-2 in this week would be huge.

Week 3 (starting 3/24): Home vs. PHX, LAK, CHI, away at CBJ (advanced stats: PHX, LAK, CBJ, CHI)

Another 3 games at home, starting with the Yotes, who are in the 4th spot in the Pacific, which won't be enough to get them to the playoffs. We were lucky to catch the Kings in LA during their pre-Olympic royal slump. Their offense has woken up since and they've added Marian Gaborik. The Jackets are going to be clawing and scratching their way to the playoffs, which might actually be realistic this year. The Blackhawks are the most elite possession team in the league. Let's see if the Pens can at least keep this one close.

Week 4 (starting 3/31): Home vs. CAR, away at WPG, MIN, COL (advanced stats: CAR, WPG, MIN, COL)

A couple of road games out west and what should be an easy home game against Carolina, a team that might be out of the playoff picture completely by then. Minnesota has added Matt Moulson to a team that, in my opinion, should be doing a lot better than it is. Colorado will probably be the toughest game this week, but at least in theory, all four are very winnable games.

Week 5 (starting 4/7): Home vs. DET, PHI, OTT (advanced stats DET, PHI, OTT)

The regular season concludes with 3 home game against very familiar foes. A lot of how these games will go will depend on where these teams find themselves in the last week. Ottawa may be out. Detroit will probably still be on the bubble. The Flyers games in the last week of the regular season are always fun.

WHERE DO THE PENS GO FROM HERE?

Puck Prediction recently posted their latest playoff forecast. They have the Bruins winning the President's Trophy, and the Pens winning the Metro and drawing the Devils in the first round of the playoffs. That aside, what's going to be a lot more important is how the team and individual players perform down the stretch before the playoffs.

Fleury has stolen quite a few points for us this season. Niskanen and Maatta have, both individually and as a pairing, been a revelation in the best sense of the word. Crosby and Kunitz have been carrying the scoring load for a long time, but without Dupuis their production has started to sputter.

It's time for Malkin, Neal and Jokinen to turn it up another notch and lead the way from here on out. It's time for the bottom 6, having been somewhat shored up at the deadline, to at least tread water. It's time for Despres to show he really belongs on this team. It's time for Scuderi and Orpik to look like veteran, savvy defensemen worthy of their contracts.

A fairly prevalent mindset in the Penguins fanbase is that we really won't find out what this team is made of until the playoffs. We won't know if a Bylsma-coached team will be mentally tough, we won't know if Fleury is the real #1 goalie, we won't know about our defense, we won't know if our superstars will keep their cool under pressure.

Count mine as the opinion not belonging to those above. I think we are about to find out exactly what this team is made of in the last 19 games of the regular season.

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