Tonight the Pittsburgh Penguins are in Boston to face off against a Bruins team they have yet to beat on the road under the helm of former Bruins head coach Mike Sullivan. It is the first of six games on the road, eight of the next nine, predicated by the NCAA hosting the Frozen Four men’s hockey championship at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. These two teams last met in Pittsburgh on March 15 and 16, the second game of which Boston broke Pittsburgh’s six-game winning streak, to date their longest of the season. Since then Pittsburgh has lost only two games out of seven, while Boston has lost two out of five games. As I mentioned the other day, under normal circumstances having the calendar flip over to April would lead to thoughts of finalizing playoff seeding, but as we all know circumstances are not normal and those thoughts are delayed until May.
That being said, tonight’s game is the thirty-seventh on the schedule for the Penguins and marks the end of two-thirds of the regular season. After how the first third of the season went, I would not have bet on Pittsburgh being in striking distance of first place in the East Division, but as it stands heading into tonight’s slate the Penguins are two points behind the Washington Capitals for first, and tied for second with the New York Islanders. (The Capitals and Islanders play tonight then again on April 6, then three more games after that. Pittsburgh is done with the Islanders and has two games left against Washington.)
As we all are aware, the story of the season for Pittsburgh has been injuries challenging the depth of the organization. The only two players on the roster to not have missed games for one reason or another are Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust, and crucially so. After missing thirty games last season, Guentzel has played at nearly a point-per-game pace this year, while on the opposite wing Rust has played just as well as he did all of last season. Outside of those two, no one who was expected to be a regular on the NHL team has escaped injury or illness. In the first third of the season it was practically the entire defensive corps spending some time on the shelf, and in the previous third it was the forwards. Unsurprisingly then, in another case of one injury forward, one injury back, Jason Zucker returned to the lineup on Monday only to have the team see goaltender Tristan Jarry pulled from the game after one period, and now he will miss time. Tonight it’s likely Brandon Tanev will return to the lineup, so Casey DeSmith better be careful!
Still, Pittsburgh has shown remarkable resilience in fending off the regression of losing key players from the lineup, and have not only managed to stay in the playoff race, but have established themselves as players for the #1 seed in the division. However, it stands to be a tough battle to get that berth, and even then the reward, besides home-ice advantage, will nevertheless be a tough first-round opponent. (Unless it’s the Philadelphia Flyers. Which it won’t be.) Right now that four-seed belongs to the Bruins, who have scuffled along at a 8-8-3 pace since February 13 when they came into Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum at a record of 10-1-2.
Two postseasons ago they were Stanley Cup Finalists, and who’s to say where they would have been last postseason; although the President’s Trophy is often a kiss of death, they were run over by the eventual Champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Nevertheless, you can’t say they would be an easy team to beat as Boston is a veteran team with plenty of playoff experience. Just as we can only imagine what the Penguins would look like fully healthy, imagine how the Bruins would be doing if they weren’t underperforming? And just like Pittsburgh, how active will, or can, Boston be at the trade deadline?
The main difference between both teams is that Boston isn’t missing a guy like Evgeni Malkin from their lineup. Yes, Boston has injuries to some of the guys lower down on their depth chart, but Malkin is a major producer and was hitting it off with Kasperi Kapanen for a little while before his injury. For the Penguins to have been as successful as they have been in spite of all their injuries, it lends a lot of optimism to Pittsburgh’s playoff chances, and my hope is that Malkin returns at least a couple of weeks before the playoffs and rekindles that chemistry with Kapanen. (Is it unreasonable to want the Penguins to be fully healthy before the playoffs? Given recent history, yeah, probably.)
This last third of the schedule will be telling in this regard: four games against potential playoff foes Boston, two against Washington and the Rangers, four against Buffalo (LOL), five(!) against the Devils, and three against the Flyers, who are certain to go down scratching and clawing. It will be a roller-coaster to end the season for the Penguins, and they have to be ready for anything.