Simply put, the Pittsburgh Penguins have to win tonight. It might sound too early to say that, but, in case you forgot, the 28th game of the season will mark the midway point of the year, and we’re five games away from that mark. Sitting in fifth place in the East Division, the Penguins are two points out of the fourth and final playoff seed in the first round of the postseason. Ahead of them are their opponents for tonight, the Philadelphia Flyers, and a Boston Bruins team that the Penguins still have to face six more times this season and was and still is a very serious contender for the Stanley Cup.
In the first of this three game series against the Flyers, even though they punched four goals past Carter Hart, Pittsburgh was carried by the almighty god PDO: Tristan Jarry stopped forty shots, while their shooting percentage was 18.52%, their best rate of the season, so of course the final score was 5-2. But despite sprinting out to a 3-0 lead in the first four minutes of Thursday’s game, the Penguins spent the rest of the game allowing four unanswered goals and their overall average performance ended up a 4-3 loss.
The Penguins are not in a position to play average hockey. They cannot afford to put in anything less than a sixty-minute performance every night. They don’t have talent up and down the lineup that will consistently take up the slack for someone else. Curiously they seem to take things more seriously when Sidney Crosby is out of the lineup, but that could be a fluke just as much as it could be admission that Crosby’s teammates do indeed have another gear and can focus harder if given the proper motivation. In any event, there are other teams in their own division, let alone in the rest of the League, that do have the depth to get away with someone underperforming on any given night, or an injury to a key player, or a bad night by their goaltender. They will regularly find a way to raise their game and bail out their teammates. How many Penguins can we say that about?
The Penguins have few excuses at this point. The only player who would normally be expected to be in the lineup tonight but won’t be due to injury is Jason Zucker. By all accounts, Brian Dumoulin will be back in the lineup tonight for just his seventeenth game since returning to the Penguins lineup from an injury last March 3rd. Even if he doesn’t return tonight, Juuso Riikola could be back, and so could Evan Rodrigues. As of right now, besides Zucker, there are no other injured or afflicted players on the roster. They are at home at PPG Paints Arena, in front of fans for just the third game of the season, and they are a much better home team than otherwise. The first third or so of the season was the feeling-out period. It’s time to get serious, otherwise they will be left in the dust by their division rivals.