Gameday 47: Trying To Get Traction

With points in their four last games and a slow trickle of injured players returning to action, the Pittsburgh Penguins lately seem like they’re trying to get onto solid ground. Sunday’s 2-1 overtime loss against the New Jersey Devils was indicative of such as the Penguins seemed to play well enough to earn at least a point in the standings, but they need to play that well consistently for the long-term results to be favorable. With Kris Letang due to return any day now, Pittsburgh will likely heading into the All-Star break with its roster in good shape if not completely 100% (Josh Archibald, Kasperi Kapanen, and Jan Rutta notwithstanding).

Eh, remember me?

Even though the Penguins will have played seven games into the second half already, the story after the All-Star break starts to more closely focus on second-half concerns: namely, the trade deadline and the playoff race. Right now Pittsburgh is hanging on to the second Wild Card seed in the Eastern Conference. That second Wild Card seed is as poisonous as a cherry pit with its winner all but certain to face the dominant Boston Bruins in the first round. The first Wild Card seed will face the Metropolitan Division leader, which is currently the Carolina Hurricanes but the Devils are not far behind. The Penguins are two points behind the Washington Capitals for the first Wild Card seed, but Pittsburgh has three games in hand on Washington so advancing up the standings is very possible. The New York Rangers sit just one point ahead of the Capitals for third in the division so, as you can see, the Penguins are not very far from changing perceptions on their outlook in the playoffs.

At this point I don’t think it’s worth arguing whether Pittsburgh should go for it (the Stanley Cup) this season, it’s just a matter of how hard a push they can make. They don’t have practically any cap space. They don’t have great prospects or assets to swing around. The big ticket unrestricted free agents on the roster are either required for success (Jason Zucker, Tristan Jarry) or have underperformed to an unfortunate extent (Brian Dumoulin, Teddy Blueger, Danton Heinen); in either case, those guys are probably unmovable. And yet we all know that things need to improve, principally in the forward depth, but the kind of move general manager Ron Hextall will have to make will be challenging to do for the above-mentioned reasons. Those reasons are likely the main excuse as to why he hasn’t made a single trade yet this season. He has five-and-a-half weeks left to see if he can swing something that will give the Penguins a better chance in the postseason.

On December 15, Pittsburgh beat the Florida Panthers 4-2 to win their seventh straight game. Since then the two teams have been on opposing albeit similar trajectories; whereas the Penguins have gone 5-7-4, Florida has a 9-7-1 record and is now tied with the New York Islanders for ninth in the Eastern Conference, three points behind Pittsburgh for a playoff spot. As I mentioned, that second Wild Card seed is almost certain death unless the Bruins run into major health issues, so there is definitely an impetus for teams to get the first Wild Card seed or break into third in the division. In the Atlantic Division third place currently belongs to the Tampa Bay Lightning who are eight points ahead of Florida and not showing much sign of slowing down.

Unless the pieces starting falling together for the Panthers they’ll need “help” from the teams in front of them, and I don’t know if that’s going to happen for them if they keep suffering injuries. Anthony Duclair has yet to make an appearance for Florida this season, Sam Bennett and Aaron Ekblad both left Saturday’s 5-3 win against the Minnesota Wild, Eric Staal has been out since suffering a reverse hit/interference from Mark Matheson in their 6-2 win against the Montreal Canadiens last Thursday, and they’re missing their top two goaltenders in Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight as well. You probably thought the Penguins had it bad, but at least we have some reason to be hopeful about Pittsburgh’s playoff chances. The Panthers, however, are in a tough spot and it doesn’t look to be getting any easier.

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