Here we are, the penultimate month of the NHL regular season (although, there are just three games in April), and it’s do-or-die time for the teams on the playoff bubble. For the first time in four years, nothing is certain for the Pittsburgh Penguins, as they sit just one point ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second Wild Card seed in the Eastern Conference. If it hadn’t been for their 5-2 win on Tuesday over Columbus, it would be the other way around, but in any event these are desperate times for the Penguins. While the Penguins could get Kris Letang back for tonight’s game (although it’s unlikely from what I’ve seen), they are still definitely going to be without Olli Maatta, Brian Dumoulin, and now Chad Ruhwedel and Bryan Rust.
The consolation prize is that the Penguins were able to beat a retooled Blue Jackets team by three without those five skaters, but the long term prospects of making the playoffs and winning the Cup take a huge hit the longer most of those guys are out. Letang and Dumoulin have been the backbone of the Penguins’ defense all season, Maatta is a key defensive piece, Rust has been on a roll in the past couple of months, and Ruhwedel had been doing well enough in his limited use. This slew of injuries could not have come at a worse time, and yet there’s nothing that can be done but to soldier forth and hopefully make the most of it.
All season long we have seen and heard the Penguins talking about turning points, as though the concept of a turning point is corporeal. It has got to be as frustrating to them as it is to us that those points they’ve talked about haven’t materialized into a consistent rhythm of playing well, but the good news is that they have yet to completely waste their chance to turn the corner they have been so arduously looking to find. By virtue of being in one of the closest divisions in the League, they sit just five points out of first place in the Metropolitan, which belies their performance through the first sixty-three games of the season. They’ve managed to look painfully bad and awfully good at the same time and even in the same game at various points in the season, which itself is maddening.
Getting everyone on the same page at the same time has been a season-long challenge and it’s not going to improve with some of the key players on the roster injured. All we heard about in the lead-up to Justin Schultz’s return from injury is how much Evgeni Malkin stood to benefit from having an offensively-skilled defenseman on the ice with him on even-strength. So, naturally, Sidney Crosby’s chief defenseman, Letang, goes down with an injury and, predictably, Schultz gets promoted to the top pairing with Crosby while Malkin is left with the scraps. (While Malkin and Schultz did have the most ice-time together overall, at even strength Malkin saw effectively equal time with Marcus Pettersson, Zach Trotman, and Jack Johnson.)
The power-play is still a sore subject. Though the Penguins remain sixth overall in the League, and they have gone an acceptable 5-for-20 in their last ten games, they are still allowing short-handed goals against, three in that same span to bring their League-worst total to thirteen. The good news is that they play a team tonight in the Buffalo Sabres that, while having the League’s fifth-best penalty kill, they’ve scored only two short-handed goals this season. It may be safe to assume that the Penguins will simply have to worry about putting the puck in the Sabres’ net and not keeping out of their own while with the man advantage.
There really isn’t much else to say at this point in the season. The Penguins’ fate is still firmly in their own control. If they can fight through the adversity of losing several key players and still manage to make the playoffs, that alone will be worth the admiration, even if it isn’t the ultimate goal they set out on in September. But they have to continue winning games, because their rivals in the division have been and will continue to be gunning to knock the Penguins out of the playoffs for the first time since 2007.