With twelve games left to go in the 2018-19 regular season, the Pittsburgh Penguins have not only put themselves into a more comfortable position in the standings, but they have continued to perform quite well despite being without key players for several days. Tonight, a quick trip over to the shores of Lake Erie and their final contest of the year against the Buffalo Sabres, who started the season looking like perhaps squeaking into a Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference, but have now fallen to sixth in the Atlantic Division and twelve points behind their division rivals in Montreal who are themselves in a battle for a Wild Card spot.
I was able to watch the first two periods of the Penguins’ last game against the Washington Capitals, which is more hockey than I’ve been able to watch in months, but anyway. The first period was fantastic to watch, but the Capitals were able to crack Matt Murray late in the period on a wicked shot from Jakub Vrana. The Penguins then came out a bit flat in the second period and the Capitals were able to score a fluke of a goal and things started looking dire. Then Jared McCann made a hell of a steal (emblematic of his acquisition) then a hell of a play to feed his doppelgänger Jake Guentzel and the Penguins spent the next two minutes turning the game on its head. It was inspired hockey, the kind we’ve been seeing a lot more of lately, something that had been missing in the first half of the season.
At long last, we’re finally starting to see the Penguins rounding into a form that makes sense, having some more cohesion and the fortitude to not just mount a comeback but to also hold off their opponents and finally put the game away at the end. To do this against a division rival at a critical point of the season is even more telling, and perhaps now there is room to have some confidence in these Pittsburgh Penguins.
I mentioned it briefly there but since Olli Maatta left the lineup with a shoulder injury on February 11, and subsequently losing Kris Letang, Bryan Rust, Chad Ruhwedel, and Zach Aston-Reese, the Penguins have had the third-best record in the NHL, tied with the Capitals and the Arizona Coyotes(!) and just two points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning (who scarcely need to win games). The biggest factor in this run has been who else but Sidney Crosby.
In the aforementioned timeframe, Sid leads all forwards in points (twenty-eight), including a second-best ten goals and a third-best nine power-play points. Not too far behind The Kid are the newly-minted Mr. 1000 points, Agent 101 Evgeni Malkin with fifteen points (including a second-best three game-winning goals) and Jake Guentzel also with fifteen points. Playing on both sides of the coin is Phil Kessel, with thirteen points but only two goals with just a 5% shooting percentage; if he can start potting goals, the Penguins will start going into hyperdrive.
One thing to watch has been the play of Matt Murray. I’ve noted in the past that, quite curiously, Murray plays better when he faces more shots, and that case still holds true for this season: Murray has just one regulation loss and two losses total when he’s faced thirty-three shots or more this season (nineteen games). Murray has faced thirty-three-plus shots eight times in the last thirteen games, including his season high of fifty-one against the Philadelphia Flyers on February 11 (confidence?), and has only the overtime loss against Philadelphia on February 23 to go against the seven other wins (including the last two games). So while Murray’s seen the most shots of anyone in the League since February 11 and has the third-best save percentage, he’s allowed thirty-one goals which is more than all but two goaltenders who have played as many games as he has in this time-frame.
Another important note as we head towards the playoffs and the battle for home ice continues: the Penguins are not the only Metropolitan Division team on a roll since February 11. As I mentioned, the Capitals have had as many points as the Penguins but one point behind are the Carolina Hurricanes and just two points behind them are the Philadelphia Flyers. Carolina’s Petr Mrazek has turned in some solid performances lately and the Hurricanes are currently the first Wild Card with a huge game against the Blue Jackets in Columbus on Friday. After the Sabres on Saturday they face the Penguins on Tuesday. The Flyers face a much more serious gauntlet as they face the Capitals tonight, then the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Penguins, and the Canadiens in the span of a week.
Continuing a preview of the week ahead in the Metro: sitting just two points ahead of the Penguins, the New York Islanders have played .500 hockey lately and are now going to face a couple teams facing desperate times over the next week. They have games against the Canadiens, sandwiching matches against the Detroit Red Wings (not desperate), the Minnesota Wild (very much so), and the Boston Bruins (who are somehow locked into their playoff matchup already).
The division-leading Capitals get two games against the Lightning along with contests against the Flyers and division-worst New Jersey Devils. Also playing .500 hockey of late are the Blue Jackets, who are tied in points but sit ahead of the Canadiens for the second Wild Card based on wins; after facing the Hurricanes at home on Friday, they head out on the road to battle the Bruins, Calgary Flames, and Edmonton Oilers (who have somehow found the willpower to go 7-2-1 in their last ten).
For the Penguins, there is no real chance to take a breather, even if tonight’s game is against a Sabres team which is basically out of playoff contention. This has all the makings of a trap game: a road game against a seemingly innocuous opponents just after a pretty good win against a rival and before a two game set back home against some desperate teams in St. Louis and Philadelphia.
With the way things are going in the division, if they don’t keep winning they might not only lose their chance to climb in the standings but they also risk being pushed back by their likewise surging peers. If they keep playing like they have been, and particularly like they did against the Capitals, it’ll be no sweat.