The Pittsburgh Penguins got through a brutal two week stretch of their season and still not not only find themselves in a Stanley Cup Playoff spot, but actually enter the week with the slimmest of leads over the New York Islanders in terms of points percentage for the first Wild Card spot, and a three-point lead over the Florida Panthers for a playoff spot.
It was not always the prettiest stretch of hockey, and there were some bad results (Montreal and Ottawa) mixed in to the expected losses (at New York, at Dallas), but they did win some big games and managed to at least maintain a good spot in the standings.
It should have better. It could have been worse. It was not always pretty.
But given the circumstances of a tough schedule over the past week, playing with a fraction of the defense, and coming off a four-game losing streak going 2-1-0 against Colorado, Dallas, and Washington is an acceptable result.
Especially when they played well enough to win that game in Dallas.
Look at it this way: If the Penguins only go 5-4-0 the rest of the way, the Florida Panthers would need to go 6-2-1 in their remaining games just to tie the Penguins in the standings (which would almost certainly give Florida the tiebreaker).
If the Penguins go 5-3-1, Florida would need to go at least 7-2-0 to tie them.
If the Penguins go 6-3-0 the rest of the way, Florida would need to go 7-1-1 to tie them.
Does Florida have that sort of run left in them? Especially with remaining games against Toronto (two), Carolina, Washington, Buffalo all remaining? I an not sure. If the Penguins can win five or six of their remaining games, I like their chances.
Keep in mind, the Islanders also have two games against Tampa Bay, two games against Washington, and a game against Carolina remaining.
This week presents the Penguins with a lot of good opportunities to bank points and keep the pressure on the other two teams.
The Penguins open the week with a game on Tuesday at Detroit and then a home game against Nashville.
Those are not only two teams that are on the outside of the playoff picture, they are two teams that sold off players at the trade deadline.
Detroit is only 3-11-1 over its past 15 games and has been badly slumping since it briefly played its way back into playoff contention. They do not do anything particularly well (bottom-10 in goals for, goals against, and power play, while also 18th on the penalty kill) and have had mostly sub-par goaltending all season. They did, however, beat the Penguins in their only meeting so far this season erasing a four-goal first period deficit to win 5-4 in overtime. It was one of those “worst losses of the season before an even worse happened” type of games.
Given what is at stake for the Penguins, and given how much the Red Wings have struggled, those are two points they need to get.
It is a similar story on Thursday when the Penguins host the Nashville Predators.
The Predators went into sellers mode at the deadline and sent away Nino Neiderreiter, Tanner Jeannot, Mikael Granlund, and Mattias Ekholm off of its roster and have played about as expected since that. They are still somewhat in the Western Conference Wild Card race, but have almost zero margin for error. They are 6-5-2 in their games since the trade deadline and will be coming off of a game against Boston on their way into Pittsburgh. Like the Red Wings game, those are a “should have” two points.
Things get a little tougher on the weekend with a home back-to-back against Boston and Philadelphia. This will be the Penguins’ final back-to-back of the season and it definitely presents a challenge.
The Boston challenge is obvious. The Bruins are on track to be the best regular season team in NHL history and have been crushing teams all year. The Penguins actually played Boston tough in their first two meetings, and probably should have won at least one of them (the first game featured another major blown lead). The challenge there is obvious. The Bruins are great and the Penguins always struggle with them even in the best of times.
The challenge on Sunday with the Flyers is that is another trap game. The second half of a back-to-back, Philadelphia is actually 4-0-1 in its past five games entering the week, and it is sandwiched between games against Boston and New Jersey. That is an easy one to overlook, but one you absolutely can not afford to overlook given the need for two points in the standings.
The goal this week for the Penguins should be a 3-1-0 record and at least six points in the standings. You have to beat the teams you should beat. It is not a major disappointment if you lose to Boston.
Ever since the All-Star Break the Penguins’ process has been mostly good, if not great, when it comes to 5-on-5 play. They have dominated teams in that regard. They have failed to produce consistent results, though, due to injuries on defense, bad defensive play, bad special teams, little depth scoring, and inconsistent goaltending. All things that highlight the flaws of the roster. The best hope is they continue that process, continue to scratch out wins where they can until Marcus Pettersson and Jeff Petry return to the lineup, and hope that somebody emerges in goal to give them some consistency at the position.