The Pittsburgh Penguins have had a big few days in the race for an Eastern Conference Wild Card spot by running off three consecutive wins, all of them in fairly impressive fashion. Some of the scores might have been close, but in terms of controlling the pace of play and all of the shot and chance numbers, the Penguins have been doing what you want to see them do.
Those three wins are also coming at a great time after an ugly four-game losing streak that saw them let two dominant performances against the New York Islanders slip away, and then getting dominated by the New Jersey Devils and Edmonton Oilers.
They needed these three wins. They needed them badly. What makes Tuesday’s win in Nashville so important is that it came on the same night Buffalo and Detroit lost in regulation, and on a night where the New York Islanders only managed a single point against the Minnesota Wild.
They got the result they needed and a lot of help around them.
Based on points percentage, the Penguins are on a 94-point pace which would put them in the top Wild Card spot (with a potential First Round matchup) against the Carolina Hurricanes. What makes those two Islanders losses sting is that if they had won those games they would have been within striking distance of the New York Rangers for the No. 3 spot in the Metropolitan Division, but now they pretty much need to run the table against them in their remaining head-to-head meetings to have a chance to catch them.
For now though the Wild Card is the focus, so let us take a look at the Penguins’ competition for one of those spots and see who is the biggest challenger, and who they might not need to worry about that much.
The top challengers
Buffalo Sabres. This still stuns me this season because I figured they were still a year or two away from even being on the playoff bubble. But here they are, and they are IN IT. Not only are they in it, they have the salary cap space to add somebody significant that might be able to push them over the top for a wild card spot. They are currently on a 91-point pace, which puts them about three points back of the Penguins’ current pace, and they are one of the few teams in this race that actually still has a game in hand on the Penguins. They do have some injury issues right now that are going to be a problem, and I am not entirely sold on their goaltending, but they can score with anybody. They have no head-to-head games remaining with the Penguins, which will make their push in catching the Penguins a little more difficult. They also have a brutal schedule ahead with six of their next seven games coming against playoff teams, and good playoff teams at that. That could be a make-or-break stretch for them.
Florida Panthers. The Panthers have been one of the league’s biggest disappointments this season, and by points percentage and games in hand (the Penguins have two on them) they do seem pretty far back. But even with their flaws on defense and in goal (and at the head coach position) they are the most talented team in this Wild Card race, they still have a big head-to-head game remaining with the Penguins this weekend, and they only have to go on the road seven more times this season. They have been a much better team at home, are 14-8-2 sincr January 1, and still have a lot of talent. I would not totally dismiss them yet.
Worth keeping an eye on
New York Islanders. The Islanders are technically a point ahead of the Penguins right now, which should in theory put them in the biggest competition category, but I just am having trouble seeing that. They have played FOUR more games than the Penguins and still play them one more time. The Penguins were the better team by a significant margin in their two previous meetings, and with better goaltending should have won both games. The Penguins should have Tristan Jarry for the next meeting and if the Penguins can repeat that same effort and performance, I like their chances. The Sabres and Panthers worry me more.
Still lurking around
Ottawa Senators. They kind of came out of nowhere here, but they are hanging around in that race. The Senators had one of the biggest offseasons in the league, adding Alex DeBrincat, Claude Giroux, and Cam Talbot to an already strong young core. They were a pretty big disappointment early in the year but have really started to come on strong in the second half and just swept a huge back-to-back against Detroit to climb even further into the race. Are they going to be buyers at the trade deadline? They are five points back of the Penguins with zero games in hand, which can be a very tough gap to make up this late in the season. Still, they are lurking there and not going away. Not a major threat. Not a major contender. But definitely lurking.
Detroit Red Wings. Same story as the Senators with a five-point gap and no games in hand. Also a team that had a busy offseason adding to a young core and is maybe disappointing a bit. I think Detroit might be an even bigger disappointment overall because it is so much further into its rebuild and needs to start showing some progress. Injuries have been a big issue, but I still expected a little more this season. The one thing they have going that Ottawa does not have is two head-to-head games against Pittsburgh, with both of them being in Detroit. That could either work really well in Detroit’s favor if it can win both games, or it could completely finish them if they lose both games. A split does not really change much.
They might be out of it
Washington Capitals. This one seems to have gotten away from them, even after having a strong offseason with the additions of Darcy Kuemper and Dylan Strome. But they are way down the Eastern Conference standings and are only on an 84-point pace at the moment. They not only trail the Penguins by five points, the Penguins also have two games in hand on them. Washington not only needs to win that remaining head-to-head game in Pittsburgh later this month, it also needs a big winning streak and a lot of help to jump over all of those teams between them and a Wild Card spot at the moment. Not totally ruling them out, but very close to it. They have by far the most work to do.