The latest edition of the Pittsburgh Penguins 2023-24 “one step forward, one step back” tour continued this week with stops in Minnesota and Winnipeg. The Pens only scored three total goals, a byproduct of a 1-for-9 effort on power play and went onto lose two close games. Just like that, all the progress from going 2-0-1 like they did in the games sandwiched before and after the All-Star break is right out the window. Ouch.
Let’s check in on the other important players in the Eastern Conference.
The Flyers lost five games in a row going into the All-Star break, but have shook that off to win the three games since. Their coach wasn’t pleased with how they played after their 4-1 win over Winnipeg on Thursday, yet the Flyers, somewhat inexplicably keep on winning. They’re a tough team to figure out as the season gets deeper and deeper and they keep holding it together.
The Wild Card outlook is shaping up to be a very Atlantic-centric picture.
Toronto and Tampa have been trading off with each other, bouncing in between Atlantic 3 and WC1. Both teams have been flirting with the .600% points percentage all year and will be solidly in the playoffs.
That leaves one more Wild Card spot, and the Penguins have one more surprise team to deal with. The Atlantic Division has teams who have seemingly been building and waiting forever (Detroit, Buffalo, Ottawa) and all were trying to launch their rebuilds into playoff performances this year. It hasn’t gone well in Buffalo or Ottawa at all, but wouldn’t you know it the Yzer-plan is finally showing some results. The Red Wings look like a quality team with playoff traits (great at home, solid goal differential, good firepower).
If that’s the bad news for the Penguins’ playoff hopes, the good news is that several in-division foes are stumbling mightily. The Devils are 2-4-1 in their last seven games with Dougie Hamilton and Jonas Siegenthaler both still on the IR. Patrick Roy hasn’t really given a huge bump to the Islanders since taking over (3-3-1 record). Washington was in absolute free-fall before an improbable road 3-0 win over first place Boston yesterday.
The fallout from the division rivals stumbling means the Penguins are in fourth place in the Metropolitan Division, based on points percentage...The bad news is that the resurgence of Detroit means that fourth place in the Metropolitan might not be a playoff spot.
Therein lies the current problem for the Pens, at least in terms of where they sit in the standings. The Red Wings are actually decent and the Flyers aren’t falling off. Not great developments for Pittsburgh, even though they have enough of their own problems to worry about.
Here’s perhaps the biggest one.
The Pens’ goal scoring is non-existent, sitting 14th in the conference with 144 goals. They’ve played fewer games than most, but even adjusting for goals/game doesn’t change the picture that much — Pittsburgh still sits 13th in the East at 2.90. Their consistent offense is what Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel can finish at even strength and what Erik Karlsson and Kris Letang can create from the blueline. That’s typically about it and has become a glaring issue. All the best 5v5 process and goaltending can’t cover up or replace a lack of putting the puck into the net, and that area is what is biting the Pens the hardest right now.
Kyle Dubas has preached patience in an effort to give his team time to show what they can do. If he already hasn’t realized it, pretty soon he’s going to have to act upon the knowledge that the image that they are presenting is about the best they can do. They’re an average-ish team that can have some good runs of play (like when they went 10-3-3 from December 12th - January 15th) but are going to give it all that progress back sooner or later by not having the skill and complete team to consistently win as they once did.
The Pens have a gauntlet coming up in March, with 16 games in 29 days from the 2nd - 30th of that month, in a schedule that includes seven divisional games. That stretch will likely make or break the season for good, but in truth with where the Pens are at now, they fall more on the side of needing to “make” something happen. As this weekend’s painful losses showed, they haven’t shown the ability to do that on the ice.