The Pittsburgh Penguins 2019-20 season has been a story of overlapping injuries of key players, and yet also overcoming adversity and finding ways to win. They own a strong 35-15-6 record that, all things considered, probably couldn’t be expected to be much better.
Success has many authors, and there are plenty of individuals who deserve at least a byline.
Evgeni Malkin has 58 points in 43 games this season. That’s a 110 point pace if he had played a full 82. Sidney Crosby has 17 points in 11 games since returning from a major core surgery. Tristan Jarry has been one of the league’s most consistent goalies. Bryan Rust has emerged to be a reliable point producer. Jake Guentzel was on a 40 goal pace again before he got hurt. John Marino came out of no where to be one of the league’s best rookies. Kris Letang continues to perform as a top minutes eater and points generator as a defenseman. Dominik Kahun and Jared McCann have popped in spots. You can go on and on, as you have to looking at team success in the NHL.
Looking in the big picture back to last summer, a majority of Pensburgh voters didn’t expect this. And, digging into the context - Malkin’s bounce-back wasn’t certain. No one knew or could have expected Marino and Jarry to step in as well as they have. So for the question, “are the Pens more likely to win the division or miss the playoffs entirely” seems foolish now, but back then, when no one knew if Rust would be a sacrificial lamb to questionable salary cap signings, well, it was a viable question.
Now, in mid-February, with almost 60 games down the answer is obvious. And thanks to the Capitals being mighty shaky after the All-Star break, it’s all there for the Pens to win their first division title since 2013-14 with three head-to-head PIT/WSH meetings still to go.
Especially with Pittsburgh beating the Caps once this season, going 4-1-0 since the start of 2018-19 and 7-3-0 in the last ten against Washington and showing huge signs of success against their biggest modern day rival, and team that has rang up an impressive four straight Metro Division titles. Depending on how those three meetings go, Pittsburgh is clearly in position to change the recent past of Washington divisional championships.
The “RW” column could be key, that’s regulation wins and it’s the first tiebreaker this season if teams are tied in points overall. Washington has a four win advantage right now and will likely have that edge on Pittsburgh at years end. But the Pens have one game in hand right now, and are only three points back.
It’s possible (though certainly not definite) that Pittsburgh could draw even closer to first place in the division after this weekend. The Caps play tonight in Arizona. The Pens get lowly Detroit on Sunday afternoon. Best case is Pittsburgh is one point back with a game in hand if they get a win and see a Caps regulation loss. Regardless, the three remaining PIT/WSH matchups will decide this one way or the other, especially if those contests end in regulation.
No matter how it shakes out, it should be very encouraging despite the adversity of important injuries that the Pens have a little bit of a cushion to be above the fray of the NYI-PHI-CBJ-CAR mix of teams in the middle of the division. All of those squads have had some good moments. One of them won’t make the playoffs. But it’s not likely to be Pittsburgh involved in that mess of jockeying for positioning.
By hook, crook, luck and skill the Pens have carved out a very favorable spot for themselves right now. They’re in contention to win the division. They will almost certainly extend their active league-high playoff streak to 14 years, in a climate where second place will be looking to move to six straight playoff years (NSH and WSH).
Last night we saw a Pens team invigorated by the addition of Jason Zucker who scored two goals and made his presence known, helping Pittsburgh to another win. It’s put them in a position where they can be in the driver’s seat for the rest of the regular season if they continue to get positive results against the Caps.
For what could be reasonably imagined last summer, despite the mountain of injures, it’s tough to imagine this working out much better for Pittsburgh so far. They’re chugging along going 4-1-1 after the All-Star break and going 10-2-2 in the last 14 games. The arrow is trending up and every day that goes by is another day closer to getting Marino, Kahun, Brian Dumoulin and Nick Bjugstad back into the lineup.