The Pittsburgh Penguins had a couple of rough games this week, losing 4-1 in Toronto and 4-3 against Carolina. The Toronto game was a complete meltdown, while the Carolina game was more of a 50-50 split, where the Hurricanes carried the first part and the Penguins carried the second part.
My overall thoughts from a big picture outlook? Not all that concerned about it. The Penguins have played 52 games so far this season and only lost 13 of them in regulation, one of the best rates in the league. Over a full 82-game season you are going to have some stretches where you simply do not play all that well, do not get the results you want, or all of the above.
When I made this point on Twitter I had a bit of pushback with several responses about how the Penguins are struggling because they are no longer playing bad teams, are playing better teams, and are struggling against them. The concern there is obvious: If you can not beat better teams, you are probably not going to go far in the Stanley Cup Playoffs because you do not get to play the Buffalos and Philadelphias in the playoffs. Obviously Toronto and Carolina are top tier teams, and the Penguins dropped both games against them. The second half of their schedule is loaded against likely playoff teams.
But do they really struggle against playoff teams? Also, how do they compare to the rest of the league in that regard so far this season?
Well, here are some numbers.
Against teams that are currently in a playoff position right now (by points percentage) the Penguins have an exactly .500 record at 8-8-4. At first glance, that might not appear all that encouraging and it could look like they are padding their record against the bottom tier teams in the league. Here is how it actually compares.
There are five teams (Carolina, Florida, Toronto, Colorado, and St. Louis) that clearly stand out above the rest of the pack in how they compete against other playoff teams. Then there is another group including Calgary, Tampa Bay, Edmonton, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, and Washington that are either .500 or a game or two above .500 against playoff teams. Then there is another group (New York Rangers, Nashville, Los Angeles, Vegas, and Boston) that are well below .500 against playoff teams.
Not entirely sure this means anything about the overall quality of any of these teams (and I certainly would not rank them based only on this), other than this: Good teams beat the teams they are supposed to beat, and mostly play around .500 against other playoff teams. Which seems about right. Think about an actual playoff series. They rarely end in a sweep, and even five games tend to be rare the deeper into the postseason you get. They usually go six or seven games, which is a pretty even matchup with a relatively small margin. Good teams are going to beat other good teams pretty regularly and tend to split them. We see it in the playoffs. It stands to reason that we would see it in the regular season.
So yeah, the Penguins struggled at times over these past two games against top tier playoff teams. But they also won their other two games against Toronto this season by a combined score of 9-1 and went 2-1 against them this season with a 10-5 goal advantage. It would not be a stretch to think they could split their remaining games with Carolina. What would that then tell us? That they can compete with them and probably split the games, which is what you would again expect in the playoffs.
The Penguins mostly beat the teams they are supposed to beat and more than hold their own against other top tier playoff teams. Not really seeing a problem here.