Gameday 72: Neon Demon

Following the Pittsburgh Penguins right now is quite the dichotomy. On the one hand, you’ve got people like me who see no hope for the Penguins to make a serious run in the playoffs and would rather see the team self-immolate in the hopes of rising up from the ashes like a phoenix next season with (at the very least) a new general manager who won’t build the supporting structure of this roster with toothpicks and spit. On the other hand, you get games like last night’s wherein Pittsburgh pulled out the trap-game win on the road 5-2 over the defending champion Colorado Avalanche and the belief that this team could actually make some noise in the playoffs comes bubbling back up to the surface. Let’s ignore the fact that the Avalanche were missing a bunch of key players (because, and stop me if you’ve heard this before, the Penguins were too), and briefly celebrate Pittsburgh’s effort before remembering that they’re quite stuck in a Wild Card spot and their odds of winning a series in the first round are low.

The Penguins’ brief tour of the Central Division continues (and ends) tonight against the first place Dallas Stars. As I pointed out before, unlike the Eastern Conference (where it’s the Bruins in the first tier, the Devils and Hurricanes in the second tier, then the next three in the third tier), the Western Conference features a more even distribution of teams although becoming slightly more distinct as time moves on here in the last weeks of the regular season. From first in the conference (Vegas, with 94 points) to sixth (Colorado, 88 points) is just a six point difference, and then there’s a quartet of teams in the Wild Card race with seven points between them. More specifically, the Stars hold only a tiebreaker advantage over the Minnesota Wild (more regulation wins) with the Avalanche just two points behind both of them, so really the battle for home ice is the key matter for these Western Conference teams looking to make the playoffs.

I didn’t get the chance to bring up the very important segment of games that ended with the back-to-back with the Rangers, nor have I brought up the remaining eleven games on the schedule. The Penguins needed to do well between February 17 and March 18, and they didn’t. They went 7-8-1 in that stretch, really shooting themselves in the foot in terms of getting a better playoff position. Now they have roughly a 1% chance of catching up with the Rangers for third in the Metropolitan Division, which may or may not matter depending on who you would like to see Pittsburgh play in the first round. More importantly they have all but given up their games-in-hand advantage over the Islanders who are currently two points ahead of the Penguins for the first Wild Card spot with Pittsburgh holding still one game over their rivals from Nassau County.


If I’m being an optimist (tough to do these days but let me try), the Penguins played ten of those sixteen games against teams in the playoffs right now. Now Pittsburgh has eleven games left on the schedule, five on the road (including tonight’s) and six at home, but crucially seven against teams that are not in the playoff race. One thing the Penguins have done well this season is beating non-playoff teams, with a 22-7-5 record that would be a 118 point pace over an 82-game season. They have no games against either the Islanders or the Florida Panthers (who are right on Pittsburgh’s tail with one point between them) so the Penguins can’t do anything to get either of those teams out of their way. But if they beat all of their non-playoff opponents and snatch a win from any of the four teams in the playoffs (at Dallas tonight, hosting Boston April 1, at New Jersey April 4, or hosting Minnesota April 6), they should be in good shape for the first Wild Card spot. And then, as they say, they’ll have to take it from there.