After being humbled a week ago on Saturday night with a 6-0 defeat at the hands of the New York Rangers, it was gut check time for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“For all intents and purposes, we’re in the playoffs right now,” coach Mike Sullivan said after that defeat. “That’s how we feel. We’re in the playoffs right now. We’re playing with our backs against the wall.”
With that sort of messaging coming from the coaching staff, the Pens did increase their intensity this week to match the desperation of their positioning. On paper, the Pens went 2-2-0 this week, which on the surface alone doesn’t draw attention. However, both losses were by one-goal (to Ottawa and Dallas) and in both games Pittsburgh arguably deserved a better fate in the end with how they played well in both games. As written here, they still need to turn their process into tangible results.
Injuries were aplenty: four of the team’s preferred top-six defensemen are on the shelf. Tristan Jarry’s on again, off again relationship with staying healthy yet again took an unfortunate turn — frustratingly for all after an awesome performance against Colorado. The schedule conspired to give some tough knocks too, with Pittsburgh completing a wicked March stretch of 11 games in 19 days last night.
With now less than three weeks of the regular season and fewer and fewer games to go, the Pens have angled back into a much better spot in the standings. Here’s how it looks.
Although the New York Islanders currently have a one-point edge on the Pens, we should really think of that more as a two point lead. The first tiebreaker is regulation wins, where NYI has a commanding and insurmountable 32-37 edge on Pittsburgh. If the Pens and Isles tie, NYI will win the better position on that difference, The Penguins will need to draw ahead of the Islanders if they want to avoid seeing the Boston Bruins in round one.
Additionally, it’s also somewhat troubling that Florida holds a wide lead in RW themselves over the Pens. Not a huge worry at this point, but it might be something to keep in the back of your mind right now that a tie in the standings is a big, big problem for Pittsburgh. They are going to need to be ahead of one of FLA/NYI when the dust settles in order to make the playoffs.
At this moment in the season, only two competitors are important to the Pens — and they are extremely important. It’s been a while, perhaps the ill-fated Mike Johnston days of 2014-15, where Pittsburgh had reason to be invested in watching the scoreboard closely this time of year. Let’s spotlight that competition, with their record in the last week:
NY Islanders (1-1-1): The Islanders might have had one of their finest wins of the season (well, against non-Penguin related teams, anyways) when they thumped Toronto 7-2 on Tuesday. That put NYI in such a good position to solidify their own playoff positioning and get some breathing room on PIT/FLA, which the Isles followed up by losing two games against non-playoff teams (CBJ, BUF). That’s perhaps the saving grace for the Penguins is that these other teams in the chase are inconsistent and play just as head-scratchingly bad sometimes.
The week ahead: NJ, @WSH, @TB
—Not the easiest scheduling, but then again given the Isles’ nonsensical ways, perhaps a challenge is what will benefit them.
Florida (1-3-0): After beating Detroit 5-2 on Monday, it was looking like everything was falling into place for the Panthers. They were 6-0-1 in their last seven and one of the hottest teams in the NHL. However, streaks like that can’t and don’t last forever, and Florida endured a course correction afterwards to balance out. The Panthers are now suddenly on a three-game losing streak, and have conceded 16 total goals in that stretch. Their goals allowed on the season (251) has always been an issue and it’s popping back up at an inopportune time.
The week ahead: @OTT, @TOR, @MTL, @CBJ
—The Panthers hit the road, where they have only a 15-18-3 record this season. The Toronto-Montreal portion is also back-to-back and three-in-four. This next week is going to be a very difficult path for Florida, even though they’re seeing three non-playoff teams.
Pittsburgh (2-2-0): As mentioned above, the 2-2 record isn’t the best thing in the world, but they did pick up points on both of their main competitors this week, which is a huge positive.
The week ahead: @DET, NSH, BOS
—The Pens really need a good start to the week in Detroit, Nashville is still pesky (and in theory based on games-in-hand they are in “playoff mode” as well trying to win their way in) and we all know Boston is a wagon.
Modeling’s outlook on the Penguins’ playoff hopes.
Hockey Viz: 76.5%
Money Puck: 82.6%
The Athletic: 82%
538 Hockey: 78%
Hockey Reference: 78.9%
This week stabilized the Pens’ playoff hopes — particularly yesterday with the huge swings of NYI+FLA losing and Pittsburgh finding a way to pull out a win, despite their disdain of protecting leads. As a result of all these results, on Hockey Viz, Pittsburgh’s playoff outlook jumped almost 20% (from 56.6% to 76.5%) in a single day.
It’s the time of the year in a tight chase for wild swings, I believe the Moneypuck hopes bottomed out at 43% earlier in the week, before now almost doubling from that point over just a few days.
The outlooks of these models would be just as volatile this week if results turn sour too, the Pens likely would give up all the ground they’ve made up lately if just a loss or two on their own and NYI/FLA getting some results. The importance of each one of these games right now keeps increasing to higher and higher levels. There are now less than double digit games for everyone. As we saw with Evgeni Malkin celebrating his goal and the players’ joy on the bench, everyone knows it. It’s officially crunch time for the Penguins.