If the Pittsburgh Penguins have any intention of leveraging home-ice advantage in the playoffs, something that should be highly precious to a team with the fifth-best home record in the League, they better start winning games. They are 4-3-1 in their last eight games, matching the pace of the first-place Washington Capitals over the same duration, but one win behind the New York Islanders who likewise are are one of the best home teams in the League but hold a one point lead over the Penguins for second in the East Division.
More critically, the Boston Bruins have been surging of late, winning six of their last eight, and now they sit three points behind Pittsburgh for fourth in the division. Add to the equation the fifth-place New York Rangers, who have also won six of their last eight, and things are starting to look perilously precarious for the Penguins. With just eleven games left on the schedule, two each against Washington and Boston, the competition for the playoffs is indeed heating up. Not to mention the fact that the Penguins did just drop a large turd of a 4-2 loss against a Buffalo Sabres team that is just one point behind the New Jersey Devils for the worst record in the League.
Perhaps then it will be required for the Penguins to sweep this final three-game set against the Devils, who have lost twelve of their last fourteen games by an average of over two goals per game. At the very least it would be payback for the Devils handing Pittsburgh two of their four losses in a March that was otherwise sterling for the Penguins.
But some encouraging news would be to see either of Evgeni Malkin or Kasperi Kapanen returning to the lineup, but we have heard no such indication from head coach Mike Sullivan over the last few injury updates, just that they are skating.
Yes, you read that right: the hockey players are skating…presumably on ice! Maybe they’ll get to do so with hockey sticks and equipment and their teammates at some point before the regular season ends? Hopefully? Right Until such fortune arrives, the Penguins will have to make do squeezing goals from the Bluegers and Rodrigueses and Sceviours in the lineup, and I’m starting to suspect that well is running dry. Certainly, the Crosby cannot be expected to carry the team all the time, much as they have had to since the injuries to the forwards started happening ’round about the time the defensemen all got healthy as February turned into March.
If I’m Mike Sullivan, I’m reminding my players to focus on the guys they’re playing on the ice tonight. The Penguins being in third place behind the Islanders and Capitals, who coincidentally will be facing one another for their last three matches of the season beginning on Thursday, means that Pittsburgh cannot rely on watching the scoreboard to gauge how much effort to put into their games. Buffalo hasn’t just rolled over and died even though they are officially and finally out of the playoff race. The Rangers haven’t either. (The Flyers seem to have, but don’t bet on them playing like it when the Penguins head to Philly in the last week of the season.) And now the Bruins are breathing down their necks. The best way for the Penguins to control their own destinies is to win games. They are in no position to float around and hope for everyone else to get hurt or go on losing skids. They simply need to win.