Gameday 51: No Leafs in February

It was not just another Tuesday night in February at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, as the Penguins hosted their cross-state rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers. Even though the Penguins and Flyers are on opposite ends of the Metropolitan Division standings, the Flyers did their part to make things interesting, taking a 1-0 lead in the first period and then taking a 4-2 lead into the third period. The Penguins would not be denied on the night of Sidney Crosby’s 500th career regular season goal, and once again the secondary scoring showed up when it was needed. It was a great deflection by Dominik Simon to tie the game at 1, and then Chad Ruhwedel with some amazing instincts to sneak behind the defense and deposit a pass from Danton Heinen in behind Flyers goalie Carter Hart to tie the game at 4. Kris Letang would finish off the Flyers in overtime, first by stealing the puck in the defensive end and then by looking off Crosby, fooling Hart and giving himself the opportunity to finish through Hart’s five-hole to give Pittsburgh the 5-4 win.

The next twenty-eight days worth of games stands to be critical for Pittsburgh. From tonight until March 17, the Penguins play twelve games, ten of which will be against teams presently in playoff position. A long look at the standings will remind everyone that, even though Pittsburgh is currently tied with the Tampa Bay Lightning for the second-most standings points in the League, the Penguins are one of four teams to have played 50 games and most teams have at least two games in hand on them. While we wait for the rest of the League to catch up to Pittsburgh, the Penguins also stand to have a few breaks of two-or-more days between games, which will help the old guys get rest. We’re also looking forward to the returns of Teddy Blueger, Jason Zucker, Drew O’Connor, and Louis Domingue. Not that the Penguins need any of those guys to return quickly, so long as things are going well, but it would be nice to see the team at full health for a minute or two again.

Tonight is the third and final meeting of the season between the Penguins and the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs are back home from a brief and disappointing trip to the Pacific Northwest, losing to the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks before taking down the Seattle Kraken 6-2 on Monday in Toronto’s first visit to Seattle. The Maple Leafs are presently sitting in third place in the Atlantic Division, a familiar position for them as they have finished third in their division four of the past five seasons. They’ve also had no luck making through the first round in each of the past five seasons, which has to be disappointing for a team that many had been expecting to eventually turn a corner with all of their big draft picks over the past decade. They’ll be hoping to break their run of poor play against Pittsburgh, having lost both of their previous contests this season 7-1 and 2-0 and the last three going back to 2019.

Even though the Eastern Conference’s playoff teams are pretty much all locked in, and even though the League prides itself on parity, that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone one of these teams have any serious hope of winning the Stanley Cup this season. Look at the teams that have represented the Eastern Conference in the last several years: Tampa for the last two, Washington, Boston, Pittsburgh, the Rangers. All of these teams are playoff bound this season, but besides Tampa you couldn’t really be confident in any of them. Boston? They’re a shell of their former selves, and lacking serious cap space or prospects otherwise. The Rangers have very suddenly burst onto the scene, but how much of their success this season relies on the production of so few players? Washington is deep offensively but their goaltending is suspect. And Pittsburgh hasn’t won a playoff round in four years, looking pathetic the last few. Pittsburgh needs to be healthy and maintain its good goal prevention numbers to have a serious shot. The good news on that front is that the defense has done a good job preventing shots and quality, and the goaltending (primarily Tristan Jarry) has cleaned up well enough.

For Toronto, after ending last season in first place within the North Division, once again they exist in a division where their excellence in the advanced statistics is drowned out by that of their Atlantic Division peers. They hadn’t been able to escape Boston’s shadow in the years prior to last, and then last year they suffered the ignominy of falling to their Original Six cohorts in Montreal in seven games. It was a Montreal team that inexplicably made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals and completely fell off the map this year. This year they may have to suffer one of the two dominating Florida teams (who would have thought) with Tampa looking at a possible third straight Cup and the Panthers perhaps finally staying healthy and showing their value. The Maple Leafs certainly don’t seem like they have much hope in that context, now do they?

Looks like they got plenty of dope…oh, wait.