Gameday 66 and 67: The Struggle Within

Thursday’s 6-3 win for the Pittsburgh Penguins over the San Jose Sharks might have appeased some folks who still believe that the Penguins making the playoffs might not be a bad thing. Looking at the standings, there’s reason to think that Pittsburgh may yet squeak their way in, as they (as of this writing) are just five points away from the second Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. Everybody in the organization is going to dismiss their astronomical odds of making the playoffs, because their pride and professionalism won’t allow them to value the chance at a high first round draft pick over the chance of a postseason berth. However, making the playoffs is not strictly the goal, because then they have the challenge of being one of the weakest teams in the playoffs, and the Penguins would need a lot of the things that haven’t been going right this season to start going right, and consistently, and now. (“Not tomorrow, not after breakfast, now!”)

Get busy living, or get busy dying, right Geno?

One of the things that would help convince me that Pittsburgh could be trouble in the playoffs would be getting more secondary scoring, and that’s even more critical now in the wake of trading Jake Guentzel to the Carolina Hurricanes. The Penguins got a bunch of goals from the depths of their roster on Thursday: Noel Acciari started the scoring, Jeff Carter tied the game at 2 in the first five minutes of the second period, John Ludvig scored his second goal of his career (which ended up being the game-winner), and Rickard Rakell notched his tenth goal of the year. All but one of Pittsburgh’s six goals had two players assisting on the tally, so it ended up that all but four Penguins skaters had points on the night. It was a breath of fresh air, for sure, but then again these are basically the same Sharks that Pittsburgh pasted 10-1 earlier in the season, the same Sharks that are all but guaranteed at least one first round draft pick this June (their own, which will likely be in the top five), so it wasn’t completely unexpected.

The Penguins have a huge slate of six games in the next ten days that could be very determinative of whether they are a playoff team or a lottery team. Starting with this weekend’s back-to-back against the Metropolitan Division-leading New York Rangers and a tough but flagging-of-late Detroit Red Wings team, Pittsburgh has five games out of six against teams currently in playoff position. On Tuesday the Penguins will then visit the New Jersey Devils, who themselves are not completely out of the playoff picture either, before heading out west for the last time this season to face the Colorado Avalanche and the Dallas Stars, then returning home to host the Carolina Hurricanes and cry over the first visit by Jake Guentzel to his first home. If the Penguins have any hope of making the playoffs, it lies in beating at least three of these teams, New Jersey and Carolina preferably and in regulation, and to be taken seriously I would think they should win at least four.

After all, the only reasonable path forward with any team with even the merest sliver of hope of making the playoffs is to try to force their way through that crack. As I made clear in Thursday’s Gameday, thanks to the archaic draft rules, there is no way to be out of the playoffs and nevertheless be invested in your team’s success. Pittsburgh is a veteran team for certain (the second-oldest in the League), and the core three plus Bryan Rust are so acutely unfamiliar with missing the playoffs that last year was their first such experience in the NHL careers. They don’t want to give up, so I guess we mustn’t either.