Tonight the Pittsburgh Penguins are on the road for the last time in the 2021 regular season, arriving in the United States capital for the last two games against their East Division rivals in the District of Columbia, the Washington Capitals. They’ll hopefully have long forgotten already the previous game, a unenthusiastic 3-1 loss at the hands of the Boston Bruins, because these are perhaps the most consequential games on the calendar as far as the playoffs are concerned.
In losing on Monday, Pittsburgh yielded its one point lead in the division to the Capitals, who themselves handily dispensed of the third-place New York Islanders in three games, including two 1-0 shutouts. In some measure of gratitude, the Penguins can thank the Capitals for the four point lead Pittsburgh currently holds over the Islanders, which could help provide the Penguins with home-ice advantage in at least the first round.
Inching painfully closer to return from injury is Alex Ovechkin, the surefire Hall of Famer who has missed Washington’s last two contests against the Islanders. At 35 years old, Ovechkin is very obviously gray but is still one of the best in the game. Last season was his third-consecutive and ninth total Richard-trophy winning year for leading the League in goals scored. The goal scoring this year has been down a touch from his career average, but he’s managed to balance that difference out by producing more assists. With his next goal he will tie Marcel Dionne for fifth all-time in goals scored; eleven more would tied him with Brett Hull for fourth. Not that the Capitals have been hurting in his absence, but he is a factor that needs reckoning with every time he’s on the ice. He will very likely go down in NHL history as the best Russian to play.
Of course, with all due respect to Sergei Gonchar, we are still on the lookout for the return of the Penguins’ best Russian ever, Evgeni Malkin. The man from Magnitogorsk has been out of action since leaving the Penguins’ 2-1 loss against the Bruins on March 16. On the whole, the 2021 season has been a down year for Geno: his per game numbers in goals, assists, shots, even penalty minutes have all been down. However, he had been on an eight-game scoring streak going into that contest against the Bruins and had a total of 5-12—17 in the prior fourteen games, and Pittsburgh went 11-3 in those games. To have Malkin back in the lineup and at something near 100% will be a major boost for the entire team. It will take pressure off the Crosby line which might not be made to play so many minutes a night. It will bump the Carter line down to play against other teams’ third lines, which may help that line break through more regularly. Anyone who thinks Malkin’s return would negatively affect the team forgets that he has led the Penguins in playoff scoring five times since 2007, and has twelve game-winning goals in his career in the postseason. As long as he is near 100%, he will likewise be a factor for Pittsburgh.
With six games left on the schedule, and the regular season ending next weekend, there is no time like the present for the Pittsburgh Penguins to get sharpened up in preparation for will very likely be a challenging postseason. Although these next two games against the Capitals are the most important, they cannot let their guard down at this point when facing the Devils and Sabres next week. They have gone so long without another multiple game injury that to ruin that streak at this point may have disastrous consequences for their Stanley Cup hopes. They need to get to work, do their jobs, win these final games, and stay healthy. If they can do that, they’ll not only be first in the division, but they’ll be in a great mindset for the playoffs. They will be as dangerous as any of the top teams in the League, and that will be a lot of fun to watch.