Gameday 54: A Critical Juncture

As I mentioned a few Gamedays ago, tonight’s game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Islanders marks the beginning of a critical twenty-nine days for Pittsburgh. This stretch will feature sixteen of their last twenty-nine games games, seven of which are on the road, thirteen against the Eastern Conference, and nine against Metropolitan Division opponents, including three games each against the Islanders and New York Rangers and one against the New Jersey Devils. Let’s get a little perspective of the playoff picture and take a look at the Eastern Conference standings as of yesterday:

Not pictured are: Ottawa, 55 points; Philadelphia, 54 points; Montreal, 50 points; and Columbus, 36 points.

So now that we have the big picture, let’s discuss some possibilities, or rather what’s not very possible. As you can see there is a hearty crowd behind Pittsburgh that could certainly supplant them if the opportunity were to arise, while the path for the Penguins to move up the standings starts with a big nine-point climb to catch up to the Rangers who are third in the division. Nine points is also the same difference between the Flyers and Pittsburgh right now. Just as much as we’d like to believe the Penguins can make up that gap between them and the Rangers, we have to accept the possibility the Philadelphia could also catch up to Pittsburgh. And, even if the Penguins sweep the remaining three games against the Rangers, they’d still need three more points just to tie the Rangers. So, there’s the unappetizing perspective. Ideally Pittsburgh would win every game from now until June and their rivals would lose all of theirs, but that’s pretty unrealistic. Even winning fifteen out of twenty games or twelve out of fourteen seems far-fetched, even if they have done it earlier this season, because the strength of their competition in this stretch is much better than in those prior stretches.

How is it possible that WE only have 2, 20+ gola scorers as of February 17th?

Right now the Penguins have to focus on beating the Islanders; a win for New York would bounce them back into a virtual tie with Pittsburgh. Since they beat the Penguins 5-1 on December 27, the Islanders have gone 7-9-5 in their last twenty-one games, with four of those wins coming against teams in the bottom of the standings. As usual their forte is not offense (Brock Nelson and Mathew Barzal are the closest to being point-per-game players) but defense, or more specifically goaltending: ranked eighth in the League in goals-against per game, they have the fourth-best team save percentage in the League on the sixth-most shots-on-goal against, and they also have the most shutouts in the League (six). Boston’s Linus Ullmark might be number-one-with-a-bullet in the Vezina race this season, but New York’s Ilya Sorokin is number-two-with-a-bullet. Like Boston with Jeremy Swayman, the Islanders also have a pretty good backup in Semyon Varlamov.

But New York’s offense, ranked twenty-fifth in the League in goals-for per game, is chiefly what’s holding them down, which might be part of the reason they went out and got Bo Horvat from the Vancouver Canucks a week or so ago. In five games Horvat already has three goals and four points total, but the Islanders have lost three of those five games. At the end of the day, having a great defense or great goaltending can cover up for an above-average offense, but only for so long, and the Islanders don’t even have an average offense. The Islanders may end up in the playoffs but they have to get more offense across the board, especially if they want to beat Boston or whoever ends up first in the Metro Division.