Gameday 36: Onwards and Upwards

Happy New Year everyone! Here’s hoping 2024 brings more positivity than we’ve been experiencing over the last few years.

The Pittsburgh Penguins head into 2024 on a much needed roll, now 7-1-1 in their last nine games and climbing their way back into the hunt in the Eastern Conference playoff race. They’re now just four points out of second place in the Metropolitan Division and one point away from the second Wild Card seed in the East. They’ve gotten excellent goaltending all season long, and now they’re starting to get excellent 5-on-5 defending and the depth scoring is showing up as well. More than half the team has scored at least one goal over that span, and all but six players have a point. Rickard Rakell returned from injury six games ago and has two goals and five points. Both Jeff Carter and Lars Eller have three goals in the last nine games. Drew O’Connor, Radim Zohorna, Noel Acciari all have goals in the last nine games. And Bryan Rust should be returning from injury tonight and adding his nearly point-per-game production to the lineup.

‘Ridin’ with Rusty’

It’s a far cry from what we were experiencing this time last year. Whether we knew it or not (although more of us probably did), last year’s 2-1 loss against the Boston Bruins at Fenway Park put an exclamation mark on what was an awful stretch for the Penguins coming out of the Christmas break (although Pittsburgh would lose one more game as part of that six-game losing streak). Not only was Kris Letang out of the lineup due to an injury and the death of his father, but Tristan Jarry would also get hurt in that Winter Classic in Boston and he would go 9-8-3 over the rest of the season with a sub-.900 save percentage. Psychologically, it spelled doom for the Penguins, and they would end up missing the playoffs and undergoing a massive management overhaul this past summer.

Ok, stop.

Of course, things have changed a lot for Pittsburgh in just the past couple of weeks. A month ago it was easy to think that the Penguins were in bad shape, as they were spinning their wheels around .500 and sitting towards the bottom of the Metropolitan Division standings. Although they are still technically in seventh place in the division, they are now tied with New Jersey and Washington for fifth in terms of standings points. Pittsburgh is trending positively in a way they have yet to do all season, even when they went on a five-game winning streak back in November, and best of all they are winning games while their rivals in the division are losing.

One of the worst teams in that regard right now are the Washington Capitals. Tied with the last place Columbus Blue Jackets with the worst record over the last ten games, they have been playing with house money since mid-November, hanging around in the playoff race with their now second-worst-in-the-division goal differential.

Only by the grace of their goaltending have they been able to hang around (seventh-best team save percentage in the NHL, tenth-fewest goals against per game), but injuries are starting to pile up. Already without Nicklas Backstrom and Max Pacioretty, they’ve been without T.J. Oshie and Sonny Milano since mid-December and Martin Fehervary and Charlie Lindgren have also been out of the lineup lately. As we know pretty well with the Penguins, several injuries can really derail an older or shallower team’s season, and the Capitals are no exception.