Gameday 50: The Battle for Home-Ice Advantage

At the risk of sounding overconfident, I am here to proclaim that the Pittsburgh Penguins will qualify for the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. No, they have not yet clinched a playoff seed, and as such there is an avenue for them to fall out of playoff position, but with the Penguins eleven points ahead of the fifth-place New York Rangers with seven games left for both teams to play, the odds of Pittsburgh missing the playoffs are astronomically low.

At this point what’s more important is the battle for home-ice advantage. With the Washington Capitals idle yesterday, Pittsburgh’s 1-0 win over the Boston Bruins on Sunday returned the Penguins to first place in the East Division. The win also allowed Pittsburgh to barely inch ahead of Washington in the point projections. The Capitals will conclude their three game series against the New York Islanders tonight while Pittsburgh ends its season series against Boston. Then Thursday the Penguins and Capitals will start their last two games of the season, and the results of these next three games will very likely determine who is the first seed and who is the second seed in the East Division. Including tonight’s game Boston has eight more games this season, including one each against the Islanders and Capitals, so there is still some room for things to change, but the long and short of it is that the Penguins, Capitals, Islanders, and Bruins will most likely represent the East Division in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Home-ice advantage is of critical importance for the Penguins, perhaps more so than any other likely playoff team. Pittsburgh has found its way to the top of the League for its record at home at 20-3-2, just one point better than the Islanders. Conversely, amongst teams which are currently and definitely in playoff position right now, for the entire season the only team with a worse road record than the Penguins is…the New York Islanders. The good news on the road record front is that since March 1 Pittsburgh has the seventh-best road record in the League, whereas New York has only improved its performance on the road marginally and Boston is only slightly better than that. Still, I think a valid reward for the Penguins after a hard-fought season such as this is to secure home-ice advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs.

The big picture is that, in case you hadn’t been paying attention, the Penguins are amongst the best teams in the League. Inexplicably so really, based on all the man-games lost this season, as demonstrated in the last Tweet Ungaba linked to in the recap for Sunday’s game. Pittsburgh has the second-best record in the League by points percentage since February 9 (not arbitrary, see next paragraph) and is tied with the Florida Panthers for seventh on the whole season. If Mike Sullivan isn’t at least a finalist for the Jack Adams award for best head coach of the year…well, I guess that’s all the more motivation to prove in the postseason that this is a high-quality Penguins team. Even in saying that, it seems almost hard to believe that the Penguins are being considered one of the top teams in the League, again based on all the injuries and health problems the team has suffered through from Game 1 to now with Evgeni Malkin and Brandon Tanev still out of the lineup. Those are two vitally important forwards still sitting in the press box, and yet Pittsburgh forges forward, seemingly oblivious to all that opposes them.

By the way, full marks should go to general manager Ron Hextall for his patience since taking the helm on February 9. With all apologies to Mark Friedman, Hextall’s only serious trade of his short tenure, acquiring Jeff Carter from the Los Angeles Kings for two mid-round draft picks, did nothing to harm the team’s chemistry. In fact, it looks as though Carter has fit in quite nicely with his new team, notching two goals in the three games against New Jersey, then having the most time on ice of any Penguins forward in the 1-0 win against Boston on Sunday.

Can you imagine the overreaction Jim Rutherford would have had if he had still been GM by the time the trade deadline rolled around? Subsequently, Hextall’s faith in the roster he inherited has seemingly been appreciated by his players and coaching staff, and Pittsburgh is well on its way to securing yet another consecutive playoff berth, and perhaps a successful postseason to boot.

The possibility that the Bruins and Penguins will meet in the first round of the playoffs is very good, which would normally be considered a very unwelcome situation. Between the other options of the Islanders and Capitals, I believe most people would say Pittsburgh would have the hardest time against Boston, and considering how the two teams have performed against each other since the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, it would indeed be quite the battle. I suspect however that the Penguins winning in Boston for the first time in years on April 1 will do well to reverse any lack of confidence that Pittsburgh might have had going into a potential series against the Bruins.

Although the Bruins made the effort to improve their forward depth by acquiring Taylor Hall from the Buffalo Sabres at the trade deadline, it has not necessarily improved their position in the standings. They may have fortified their ranking somewhat as fourth in the division, and have kept the fifth-place New York Rangers at bay for the time being, but they are not in the clear by any means and they still have two games to go against the Rangers with four points separating the two teams. As much as things are not yet set in stone for the Penguins, indeed they are certainly not for any of the top five teams in the division.

Sunday’s 1-0 win for the Penguins over the Bruins was quite the anomaly, as just one infraction was levied against either team, a late high-sticking minor against Patrice Bergeron, but Boston remains the most penalized team in the League by a healthy margin of six more power-play opportunities against than the San Jose Sharks. The Bruins make up for it by having the second-best penalty kill in the League, and two of the League’s best penalty killers in Bergeron, second on the team in penalty kill ice time, and Brad Marchand, fourth.

It’s pretty remarkable to have two of your first line forwards be capable of playing not just even strength and the power play but also on the penalty kill. Under normal circumstances having one or both of those guys off the ice leads to trouble for the Bruins’ penalty kill, as Boston has allowed seventeen shorthanded goals while scoring just two shorties of their own. However, of the roughly one-quarter of the penalty kill time when both Bergeron and Marchand are on the ice, the Bruins have negated the six shorthanded goals they’ve allowed all season by scoring six shorthanded goals. Of course, circumstances were different on Sunday with the Bergeron penalty coming while Boston was already behind and under two minutes left to play, and the power-play effectively sealed Boston’s fate that night. The overarching point I’m trying to make here is not to expect the referees to keep their whistles so silent again tonight.

The focal point for Pittsburgh remains the same: get your two points and escape unharmed. The playoffs start a week from Saturday, and there’s still quite a lot to play for.