The Pittsburgh Penguins have left coastal California and tonight will play the penultimate game of their pre-All-Star Game schedule against the Arizona Coyotes. It’s typical at this point in the season to start seeing a coalescence of likely and unlikely playoff contenders, and conventional wisdom would suggest tonight’s matchup is a meeting of teams in each camp, but the way things look now in the conferences, it’s still too early to rule most teams in or out, including both of these teams.
In the Western Conference, and particularly the Pacific Division where the Coyotes reside, the likely playoff teams are already well ahead of the pack. Of the top three in the Pacific, the Vegas Golden Knights are already eleven points ahead of the fourth-place Edmonton Oilers, and judging by goal differential there’s no reason to suggest that the top three will be unseated. The Central Division is a little less settled, with the second-place Nashville Predators ten points ahead of the Dallas Stars, but Dallas’ lead over the Colorado Avalanche is a virtual one, and the fifth-place Minnesota Wild are just one point behind. Those latter two teams are the current Wild Card teams in the West, but the logjam extends behind them with five teams within four points of the Wild and the second Wild Card; included in that list are the Coyotes, just four points away from Minnesota. All told, eight teams are in play for the last three playoff spots in the West.
The Eastern Conference is decidedly less open. The Penguins are currently the second Wild Card seed, with the Buffalo Sabres two points behind them, and then the same five points that is separating seven teams in the West is what is keeping the Sabres ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes. Adding to the solidification of power in the East is the fact that all but one team in playoff position has a .500 or better record over their last ten games (the Washington Capitals) while all but one team out of the playoffs has a .500 or worse record (the Hurricanes). In other words, the good teams are staying good and the bad teams are staying bad.
Realistically, the Penguins shouldn’t have much to worry about at this point, even though they’ve lost their last two by identical 5-2 scores and are in danger of falling out of a playoff spot. Besides the fact that there’s still thirty-four games left to play, the Penguins are ranked in the division, conference, and League:
- in goals scored: first, second, and fourth
- in goals allowed: third, sixth, and tied for twelfth
- in goal differential: first, third, and tied for sixth
- in shooting percentage: second, tied for fourth, and tied for fifth
- in save percentage: second, fifth, and tied for ninth
Just based on these basic stats alone, you can assume that the Penguins are a very good team. Still, there’s a nagging feeling that things could be better. Late Wednesday night the Penguins made a swap to possibly improve their depth by sending Der…ek Grant back to the Anaheim Ducks (hey, them again!) for Joseph Blandisi. Blandisi hasn’t played a ton in the NHL while with the Ducks organization in the last couple of years (six games and a total of sixty-seven minutes for Anaheim), so it’s tough to get a solid read on what kind of difference he’ll make in the bottom six, but for shits and giggles here’s the comparison between Blandisi and Grant:
I guess if we’re not expecting any offense out of Blandisi, the defensive production boost makes sense if he’s going to stay a fourth-liner. Last night was Grant’s first game as a Duck, and we witnessed a second coach in the same year place Derek Grant above Daniel Sprong, Grant played 3C for the Ducks last night while Sprong saddled up on the right wing of the 4th line.
The big news
Otherwise, there’s not a lot of room for improvement in terms of replacing weak players with stronger players; the team mostly just needs consistency. The goaltending situation seems to have corrected itself, but I suppose that even if it hadn’t we’d still have the same guys, Matt Murray and Casey DeSmith, splitting the chore. Defensively, things are only looking up with the impending return of Justin Schultz, which will hopefully lead to ideal pairings that would include the scratching of Jack Johnson, who has turned back into a pumpkin over the last couple of games (combined -3; Marcus Pettersson: -5) but we’ll see about that.
Amongst the forwards, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel had a particularly rough time over the last two games (a combined -12 and two assists) which is the exception and not the rule. After a month-and-a-half of being on fire, a couple bad games are to be expected, even if the losses were against two teams in opposing ends of the playoff discussion.
Arizona’s defense is a dyslexic’s nightmare, god lord look at those names, first time in his life Goligoski has the easiest name to spell. Also, Grant is still in the graphic that I made at 5 AM, so sue me. On paper this isn’t a close match up, here’s to hoping that stands true on the ice. The game is at 9 pm instead of 10 so there’s that.