Sometimes winning a hockey game takes a sixty minute effort. Sometimes it’s more like the story of the Tortoise and the Hare, where the Hare races out to a 6-0 lead, then takes a ten minute nap while the Tortoise chips away at the Hare’s lead. Luckily for the Pittsburgh Penguins, their captain, Sidney Crosby, added a seventh goal and that was the difference maker in Tuesday’s 7-6 win over the New Jersey Devils, but boy that was not their prettiest win of the season. Nevertheless, the win inched the Penguins within one point of the New York Islanders and Washington Capitals for first in the East Division, and that will be all the history books will care about this game.
However, for Pittsburgh’s head coach, Mike Sullivan, the third period of that game may serve as a haunting reminder of a Penguins team that as recently as earlier this season but for much of the past few seasons would fall asleep at points of games and offer little resistance or effort in turning the result of the game in their favor. Sometimes it would be letting teams climb back into the lead, other times it would be failing to climb back into the lead themselves. Except for Crosby’s tally, keeping pace with linemate Bryan Rust for second on the team in goals, it was a total breakdown at both ends of the ice. Certainly not palatable for anyone, even if the end result was a win. It could have just as easily been a 6-0 shutout or, as Devils head coach Lindy Ruff put it, 8-6 or 9-6 in New Jersey’s favor. Score effects are one thing, but just about everyone could have been tarred and feathered for that one.
But, here we are, ready for the puck drop of the penultimate game of the season between the Penguins and Devils, and yes, regardless of how they got there the Penguins are within one point of the division lead. With the Capitals and Islanders playing one another three times over the next five days, there will be plenty of chances for the Penguins to pull ahead of one or both of them. (I haven’t done the math to actually determine if they could both be passed, either way the Capitals and Islanders can beat the crap out of each other for all I care.) I think back to earlier this season when the Penguins were scuffling quite a bit. They were dealing with injuries to blueliners left and right, but somehow it did not submarine the team. Then they were subjected to endless forward injuries, and Pittsburgh continued to persevere. They haven’t lost three games in a row once this season. And the fact that they have been keeping up with the best teams in the League shouldn’t be lost on anyone.
As long as the team continues to get healthy (Kasperi Kapanen should be back soon, Evgeni Malkin less soon but maybe in a week, Brandon Tanev around the playoffs), and as long as they can stay healthy, I feel pretty good about this team. Jared McCann and Evan Rodrigues have maybe overperformed but that’s only a bad thing if they regress all the way back to underperformance. The defense has been generally positive throughout the season, especially in adding some offense. Both goaltenders have shown that they can carry the team, although I would probably give Casey DeSmith more opportunities than Tristan Jarry from here on out, regardless of the miserable third period against New Jersey. The first line has been immensely productive, and if the second line can get back to 100% by playoff team, I feel like these Penguins have as good a chance as anyone ahead of them in the standings to make the Conference Finals and beyond.
All this to say that I really couldn’t care less if Pittsburgh allows seven, ten, fifteen goals against in twenty minutes against the dregs of the division, so long as their final score is one more than their opponents and they continue winning games and heading towards home-ice advantage in the postseason. As long as they take their true foes like the Capitals or the Bruins or the Islanders seriously when the time comes, what does it matter how many goals they give up? The Devils are out of the playoffs. Let their fans have the temporary excitement of almost tying a game against a playoff-bound team, because at the end of the day they will be one step closer to the draft lottery and once again looking forward to next year. The Penguins may toy with them again tonight, maybe actually let them tie the game or take a lead, only to rip it away from them in dramatic fashion. Or they may simply bury them for sixty minutes instead of forty. And by the end of this series and this week, Pittsburgh could be in first place while the Devils could be in last.