Gameday 47: The Second Half (Really) Begins

Although five games have been played since the actual halfway point of the 2021-22 regular season for the Pittsburgh Penguins, the All-Star break has long been a guidepost for the actual midway point of the regular season. In case we needed refreshing (I know I did, after being out of action for two weeks), the Penguins currently sit in third place in the Metropolitan Division, two points behind both the Carolina Hurricanes (who have played four fewer games than Pittsburgh) and the New York Rangers (who have played one more game than Pittsburgh). Three points behind the Penguins are the Washington Capitals, who are thirteen points in front of the Detroit Red Wings for the second Wild Card seed in the Eastern Conference. Overall the Penguins are eighth in the NHL in points percentage, an impressive development as they can consider themselves amongst the best teams in the League, up there with Carolina, Colorado, Florida, Toronto, Tampa Bay, and the New York Rangers. Odds are good that at least one of these teams will be Conference Finalists.

The playoff race in the East, as far as which teams will qualify, is pretty well set in stone at this point, which is somewhat remarkable since there had been some expectation of things being more competitive as the younger teams mature into better play and the older teams mature out of the race. Since Pittsburgh is in the latter group, this is to their benefit! Out West, things aren’t quite as tidy, with four teams within six points of the Calgary Flames for the second Wild Card seed in that conference. Another aspect of the All-Star Game being the turning point of the regular season is that the trade market should begin to heat up prior to the deadline on March 21. The regular season ends on April 29.

The second half of the schedule is expected to intensify things for the Penguins. While eighteen of their first forty-six games (39.1%) were against teams currently in playoff position, twenty-one of the last thirty-six games (58.3%) will be against playoff teams. This includes all three games against the first-place Hurricanes, all four games against the second-place Rangers, all two games each against the Central Division’s first and second-place teams in Colorado and Nashville, the remaining one game each against Florida, Minnesota, St. Louis, Tampa, Toronto, Vegas, and Washington, and, including tonight’s game, three against the Boston Bruins. Pittsburgh is 9-5-4 against playoff foes, 5-2-3 against those in the Eastern Conference, which is good enough for the regular season, but if you consider those overtime and shootout losses to be straight-up losses (like you would in the postseason), those are each .500 records. The Penguins will be looking to improve those numbers before April is over.

Pittsburgh and Boston have had a few notable run-ins in the playoffs over the years, but this spring it’ll have been nine years since the last time they met, in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. No need to rehash exactly how that went! But the nine years since have seen a lot of turnover on their respective rosters. In fact, each team only has three position players left who were there for that series: the Bruins still have Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Krejci, while the Penguins still have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. (Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask, who infamously kept the Penguins’ offense at bay in 2013, “retired” after having hip surgery last June and his contract with the Bruins expired. He unretired and signed with Boston as a free agent on January 11, but after four subpar starts, it appears that issues related to that surgery have put Rask back on the shelf. For their part, the Penguins will be without Malkin for at least five days as he was put into COVID-19 protocol yesterday.)

Contests between the Penguins and Bruins tend to be spirited affairs despite the cross-division play, but while Pittsburgh is in the fight for the Metro Division lead, Boston will be looking to return to positive form as they try to keep ahead of the fifth-place Detroit Red Wings while trying to also climb ahead of the third-place Toronto Maple Leafs. After starting January winning eight of nine, the Bruins went into the All-Star break going 4-3-1. They don’t have the same look of the team that went to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals just three seasons ago, and their foes in the Atlantic Division are starting to supplant them. Give it a year or two and the Red Wings might knock Boston out of the playoff race altogether, while Ottawa may not be far behind as both teams see their deep pools of prospects mature and Boston’s aging team will not have very good reinforcements any time soon.

The Penguins’ Stanley Cup window may be closing for the same reason as Boston’s, and both teams made see said windows completely close soon, but the Bruins aren’t looking nearly as good in these autumn days as Pittsburgh does, and Boston has just one Cup in three visits to show for all of their post-lockout regular-season success.