The Pittsburgh Penguins have been getting a lot of criticism lately from pretty much everybody, for every possible reason.
Management. Bad trades. Bad depth. Coaching usage. Questionable goaltending. Bad penalty kill. Bad power play. Bad third period collapses and blown leads. Slow starts. Pretty much everything a hockey team could mess up or be criticized for doing wrong.
Despite all of that, and after a weekend sweep of a back-to-back against the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers, the Penguins still find themselves in a pretty good spot in the Eastern Conference Wild Card race. They have increased their lead over the non-playoff teams and still have games in hand against their closest competitors, and they are 7-1-1 in their past nine games (can you believe that? It does not seem like it!) and their underlying 5-on-5 numbers since the All-Star break are among the best in the league.
It is a completely bizarre team. It also still has a big week ahead of it with two more games against the Rangers team they faced on Sunday.
But before they can get to those two games, they have to get through what looks to be a clear and obvious trap game on Tuesday night against the Montreal Canadiens, a team that is riding a six-game losing streak going into that game.
This is a dangerous game because not only is it two points the Penguins need to collect, it is a game against one of the league’s worst teams sandwiched between three games against a divisional rival that they are trying to chase down in the standings. That is the type of game that gets overlooked. The Penguins can not allow that to happen.
The Penguins’ remaing schedule is still pretty favorable in the sense that they have more games against current non-playoff teams than they do games against teams currently in a playoff spot. That game on Tuesday is one of those games against a non-playoff team.
Even though the Canadiens have been struggling as of late, they are 2-0 (both overtime wins) against the Penguins this season and have played some really good teams really close over the past week, losing five consecutive one-goal games at one point to some really good teams (Los Angeles, Vegas, Carolina, New York Rangers). That includes a couple of shootout losses. They have been playing good teams very closely. That is still two points the Penguins need to clamp down on and get. Those are points you can not let slip away because you have to assume they are probably going to lose at least one of those two games in New York against the Rangers.
I mean, that just seems logical. Right? It is really tough to beat any team three times in a week, especially with back-to-back games in their building. The Rangers have had their flaws lately, and I still question some of their recent moves and they definitely appear to be back on their same old recipe from last year where they rely on Igor Shesterkin to bail them out (and he has not been quite as superhuman as he was a year ago). Even so, you have to imagine the Penguins lose at least one of those games.
That said. If the Penguins can get through Montreal, and then split those two games in New York, that would be the makings of a very strong week and would allow the Penguins to cut down that gap between them and the Rangers for the the third spot in the Metropolitan Division.
So I think a successful week here would be four out of these six points and really cut down that gap a little bit.
The funny thing abot this conversation is the whole argument for wanting to get out of the Wild Card spot and into the top-three of the Metropolitan Division was to avoid having to face the Boston Bruins or Carolina Hurricanes in the First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Suddenly, though, the New Jersey Devils have drawn even with the Hurricanes for first place in the Metropolitan Division which could create the possibility of the third place team having to play Carolina anyway. The Eastern Conference Wild Card race is starting to develop some gaps and is not looking quite as chaotic as it was a week or two ago. The top spot in the Metropolitan Division however is still very much in play for those two teams. Which would significantly alter the First Round matchups for the third place Metropolitan Division team and for that first Wild Card team.