The good news is that even after losing three games in a row, including two in a row against the New York Rangers (one of which barely even counts as a game between two teams) the Pittsburgh Penguins are still very much in control of their playoff chances. By points percentage they remain ahead of both the New York Islanders and Florida Panthers, but that gap is shrinking at an incredibly fast rate.
If you take care of business in those games against the New York Islanders, or if you beat the Montreal Canadiens, or if you hold on for at least a point in the first of those two Rangers games you can forgive a game like Saturday night against the Rangers. It happens. Just one of those things.
But when you lose all of those aforementioned games, and then play a clunker of a game like that, then you start to have a bad time.
The bad news for the Penguins is the schedule is not going to do them any favors this week, meaning that playoff race is about to get even more intense. Especially as the Florida Panthers keep winning and gaining ground in the standings.
Now you are in the fight.
The fight is about to get ugly.
On Monday, the Penguins host an Ottawa Senators team that presents another opportunity for two points in the standings.
The Senators are a team on the outside of the playoff picture. They have pretty much fallen out of serious playoff contention due to a five game-losing streak and having lost six out of their past seven games, having allowed at least four goals in seven consecutive games and at least five goals in six of those games.
Like the Montreal game a week ago, this is a game you can not slip away. The Penguins schedule still has a lot of non-playoff teams on it, and this is one of them. These are the games they can not waste. They already wasted one. If they waste a second, especially at home, then things are way worse than they might even seem.
Especially because of what is ahead the remainder of the week.
After playing the Senators on Monday, the Penguins go on the road for a back-to-back in Colorado and Dallas on Wednesday and Thursday. Playing Colorado and Dallas in consecutive games is going to be tough enough. Playing them on a road back-to-back makes it even worse.
With the Avalanche starting to get healthy again, something they have not had the luxury of having all year, they are starting to play like the Avalanche again and enter the week on a five-game winning streak. Since losing to Pittsburgh coming out of the All-Star break the Avalanche have gone 13-4-2 and are starting to score goals in bunches again. That is not going to be an easy game.
Neither is the next night in Dallas.
The Stars have been one of the top teams in the Western Conference from the start of the season, and made a couple of impactful rental deals at the trade deadline to get Evgenii Dadonov and Max Domi.
They have the best top-line in hockey with Jason Robertson, Joe Pavelski, and Roope Hintz, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin have both had strong bounce-back seasons, Wyatt Johnson is emerging as a Calder Trophy candidate, and they made a couple of strong trade deadline moves. They also have an outstanding No. 1 defensemana in Miro Heiskanen and an emerging superstar in goalie in Jake Oettinger. They are deep, good, and have a great goalie. The Penguins also have to play them on the second half of a back-to-back, on the road, after traveling from Denver, all while Dallas will be at home and rested. That is going to be the toughest game of the week just based on schedule. Add in the matchups and it gets even tougher.
Then the Penguins close out the week with another game this weekend against a non-playoff team (the Washington Capitals) at home. Like the Senators, the Capitals have pretty much fallen out of playoff contention by going 5-11-1 in their most recent 17 games. They are not really doing anything well at the moment. They are not scoring goals, they are not defending well, they are not getting great goaltending, and then made a lot of trades to subtract from the roster at the trade deadline. Given that the game is at home, that should be another opportunity to get two more points.
Here is what the Penguins need this week. They need to win the two games that bookend the week against Ottawa and Washington. If they can do that, while also maybe stealing even just ONE point from the Colorado-Dallas back-to-back, they should still be in good shape for the Eastern Conference Wild Card race. But if they lose one, or both, of those bookend games against Ottawa and/or Washington, they are just making the fight even more difficult than they have already made it.
They need five out of eight points this week. That should be the goal. It should also be a very realistic goal.