Gameday 73: Playing With Fire

Now ten games left to go on the regular season schedule for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who quite predictably lost the second game of their Central Division back-to-back on Thursday, a 3-2 defeat while visiting the Dallas Stars. As I like to say in recollecting International Superstar Soccer Deluxe, it was a valiant effort, but thwarted. Once again Pittsburgh dominated the flow of the game, with all the shot metrics over 55% in their favor and the expected goals being almost one-and-a-half in their favor, but it was the goaltending matchup that ultimately told the story, with Penguins backup Casey DeSmith being outplayed by Stars starter Jake Oettinger. Given the news prior to the game, that Tristan Jarry would be unavailable to back up DeSmith, I have a sneaking suspicion that Pittsburgh may have to deal with the additional challenge of making this late playoff push without their starting goaltender. Again.

Jarry’s chronic lower-body troubles are a major issue for the future as well as the present, but all we can concern ourselves with is what’s going on now. And it wouldn’t be so bad if it was only Jarry out of the lineup, but the Penguins are also without four defensemen so they’ve got Kris Letang and a bunch of (if you’re familiar with the baseball parlance) AAAA and AAA defensemen in front of goal. It also wouldn’t be so bad if Pittsburgh was in a more secure place with regards to its playoff spot, but the loss also meant that their games-in-hand advantage over the New York Islanders, still two points ahead of the Penguins, has completely disappeared. For now, Pittsburgh is still in its second Wild Card spot, but only by the grace of the Florida Panthers also losing on Thursday night. Nevertheless it’s not a pretty picture and, with Pittsburgh fighting for its playoff life, it’s a really bad time to have so many key players out.

The roller coaster continues on unabated with a home game tonight against their longtime foes, the Washington Capitals. The Capitals are not yet out of the playoff picture, but they appear to be headed that way soon as they sit four points behind the Penguins and three behind the Panthers while having played an additional game already. It’ll be just the second time since the 2007-08 season that Washington will have missed the playoffs. Theirs has been an interesting form of mediocrity. Whereas most mediocre teams muddle about just on the cusp of making or missing the playoffs and not really progressing or regressing in any fashion, Washington spent years and years being successful in the regular season (thirteen seasons of being first or second in their division) only to flop out in the first or second round just about every time. Of course, they finally won the Stanley Cup in 2018, but the last few years the inevitable decay of age and the dissolution of that championship-winning team have put the Capitals now more in the latter form of mediocrity.

All Washington has going for it now is Alex Ovechkin in his quest for 895+ goals and breaking Wayne Gretzky’s 34-year-old career record. Ovechkin has just 74 goals to go to get the record which may very well happen in a couple of years. He still has three years left under contract with the Capitals, and he’s been pretty durable, playing almost two whole seasons’ worth of games more than Sidney Crosby. It would be pretty amazing to see him get to 1,000 goals, but at about 60 goals a season over the remainder of his contract that sounds like a bridge too far. Nevertheless, as the two greats approach the swan songs of their careers, it’s good to see their rivalry has evolved into the sportsmanship we’ve seen between the pair of late.

For Pittsburgh, it doesn’t appear that they have any interest in giving up on the playoffs, which is amusing, like Little Mac deciding he thinks he can take the championship from Mike Tyson. Given the health issues plaguing them at the moment, particularly in their defensive end, it doesn’t seem likely that they’ll be a difficult opponent in the playoffs. We know they are great on offense, but right now the challenge is preventing their opponents from scoring.