They let that chance slip away by losing one of the most maddening games of the season against the Islanders (more on that in a second) and then following it up the next night with a tough performance against New Jersey.
It leaves them in a very similar position going into this week. They have a big points percentage advantage over the other playoff contenders, largely because they still have so many games in hand, but they need to start winning a lot of those games. Especially the head-to-head games. That includes Monday’s rematch at home with the New York Islanders.
Had the Penguins taken care of business on Friday night they could have potentially delivered a knockout punch to the Islanders on Monday, but are now just in a position where they can simply widen their lead. What makes Friday’s loss so frustrating beyond belief is that the Penguins did everything right in that game, and it is actually statistically wild that they not only lost, but did not even get a point.
They scored four goals against one of the best goalies in the world. They dominated the game territorially. Even if you want to argue that the third line was bad and their third period was not as strong as the first two periods, they still finished the game with a 69 percent share of the expected goals. That is domination. It should have been a win. The only reason it was not? Goaltending. Mostly goaltending. Just for some perspective on how statistically improbable a loss in that sort of game is, there have been 48 games this season where a team scored at least four goals and had at least a 69 percent share of the expected goals (in all situations). Those teams are 44-1-3 in those games. The Penguins are the one team that lost in regulation. Over the past three seasons, there have been 167 games where a team scored at least four goals and had a 69 percent expected goals share. Those teams are 162-2-3. There was no excuse for the Penguins to lose that game.
Having said that, they still have a chance to make a big impact on Monday. They are a better team than the Islanders. If they can repeat that sort of effort, you have to hope they can get at least a couple of saves when they need them to get potentially get two big points.
After that, the Penguins get a much tougher test when Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and the Edmonton Oilers visit Pittsburgh. Edmonton has won each of the past two meetings in very convincing fashion.
The Oilers are in the middle of a weird stretch right now. They went into the All-Star break on an eight-game point streak (7-0-1) and have collected at least a point in six of the seven games coming out of the All-Star break, despite only actually winning two of them (2-1-4). Overall, they only have one regulation loss over their past 15 games. They are the best offensive team in the league, which is going to cause fits for a Penguins team that has struggled to defend lately and still has no idea when its only reliable goalie will be returning to the lineup. That is going to be a very tough game.
After that, the Penguins travel to face off with the St. Louis Blues. This is the game this week that should have two points circled on it. The Blues are one of the most disappointing teams in the league this season, have already traded two of their best players in Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan O’Reilly and could have more players gone via trade by the time that game gets played. They do not defend well, their goalie stinks, and they just lost 7-2 to the Ottawa Senators. The Penguins need to win that game.
Overall this is a significant week for the Pittsburgh Penguins. If they can get four or five out of a possible six points here it should solidify them as a playoff team and give the front office motivation to be buyers at the trade deadline. Especially if they can actually win and play well. But what if they lose two games? Or all three? How does that impact what the front office does or alter the trade deadline plans? Would it? Should it? It could. Maybe not to the point of selling, but perhaps just standing pat and doing nothing, which would honestly be the ultimate Ron Hextall trade deadline. The Penguins are still clinging to a playoff spot and they have a chance to keep building on that lead. They just simply need to take care of business this week.