It was not a pretty weekend for the Pittsburgh Penguins, managing just two goals total against the St. Louis Blues and the Philadelphia Flyers, but considering they came away with a point in the standings for that lackluster effort; I guess that’s the silver lining when you’re still jockeying for playoff position. With nine games left in the regular season, the Penguins are inching ever closer to a playoff spot, and they start a four-game road trip tonight against a Carolina Hurricanes team breathing down their necks; just three points away and looking to keep ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Wild Card race.
The injuries are continuing to pile up at the expense of the Penguins, with the post-game notification by head coach Mike Sullivan after the Flyers game that Evgeni Malkin is week-to-week with an upper body injury which most observers are attributing to a hit by former Penguin and current Blue Robert Bortuzzo. With Malkin, Kris LeTang, Olli Maatta, Zach Aston-Reese, and (well, not as important) Chad Ruhwedel on the injury list, the Penguins are still missing several key contributors at a time of critical importance for their playoff hopes. Although it’s not likely that the Penguins will miss the playoffs at this point, it’s not good to not be at full strength heading into the playoffs and certainly not when you’re a top-heavy team such as the Penguins are. Malkin and LeTang are critical to the Penguins’ success, Maatta a little less so, ZAR still less, but they are all at least NHL-caliber players and it is hard to replace even ZAR’s impact on the lineup, let alone the first two guys.
The biggest damage will come at the man advantage, which went 0-for-8 on the weekend. LeTang has had a half-decent year on the power-play, with eighteen points which would be good for the fifth-most in his career, but Malkin’s twenty-six points are tied with Sidney Crosby for second-most on the team and twentieth in the League. As we’ve seen this season, inconsistency is a real problem for these Penguins and streakiness is a major part of that. I don’t watch the Penguins enough to make a full assessment, but it seems to me that they have a system the coaches are happy with, it’s mostly a matter of sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t…which doesn’t make much sense when the personnel are the same as they have been for a few years now, but who am I but some random guy on the Internet.
The good news heading into tonight’s game against the Hurricanes is that LeTang is considered likely to rejoin the lineup. There’s no debating that LeTang is a vital part of the Penguins, but again the team was able to play well in his absence, which flies in the face of all logic and reason when the team can win a Cup without him but is perhaps merely puzzling in the short stretch that he’s been out for. So of course he returns while Malkin heals up now, and everyone who was patiently waiting for Malkin and Schultz to work together regularly again will have to wait. It really is amazing how luck can play such a factor in how a team performs in this sport in particular.
As I mentioned before, the Hurricanes are breathing down the Penguins’ necks in the standings. While the Penguins are three points behind the division co-leaders, the Washington Capitals and the New York Islanders, the Hurricanes are behind them by the same margin and are now in the thick of the three team battle to not be the second Wild Card in the East and be faced with a first-round matchup with the rampant Tampa Bay Lightning. This game is hugely important for both teams, but Carolina certainly needs points to stay ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets (one point behind them) and the Montreal Canadiens (four points behind). Although Carolina’s playoff odds stand at somewhere in the mid-90s percentage-wise, what really matters for them is staying where they are or moving up, and, particularly tonight, in all senses the Penguins are very much in their way.
I’m tacking this on after publishing so please don’t be offended SSG! 😉
As we close in on the final weeks of the regular season, scoreboard watching is now becoming a part of our daily routine. Here’s a quick breakdown of the standings in the Metropolitan Division and the Wild Card race:
M1: New York Islanders: 91 points
M2: Washington Capitals: 91 points
M3: Pittsburgh Penguins: 88 points
M4;WC1: Carolina Hurricanes: 85 points
M5;WC2: Columbus Blue Jackets: 84 points
A4: Montreal Canadiens: 81 points
M6: Philadelphia Flyers: 78 points
A5: Florida Panthers: 76 points
Besides the Penguins and Hurricanes, elsewhere tonight: the Blue Jackets are in Calgary to face the Pacific Division-leading Flames; the Flyers and Canadiens face-off in Philadelphia while the Panthers are in Dallas opposing a Stars which is also in desperate need of points to stay in their Wild Card spot; the Capitals face a New Jersey Devils team that is out of the playoff race; and the Islanders are hosting the Bruins who have only home-ice to battle for.