Gameday 77: With A Little Help From My Friends

With six games left to go now in the 2023-24 regular season, the Pittsburgh Penguins are back in the playoff race when just two weeks ago they seemed cooked. Thursday’s 4-1 win over the Washington Capitals gave Pittsburgh their fifth win in six games and extended their points streak to seven games (5-0-2). They’ve become one of the hottest teams in the NHL at a very opportune time. Never mind who’s scoring the goals or who’s playing in their crease, all that matters is that the Penguins have to keep winning.

They have to keep winning because they’ve spent too much of this season playing mediocre hockey. They’ve only had one other stretch this season that is better than this one (when they went 6-1-1 from December 18 to January 4), besides which Pittsburgh has looked nothing like a team that deserves to be in the playoffs. They’ve put themselves in the toughest position possible, having to crash their way into the postseason party, and regardless of how the next eleven days go that should not be forgotten this offseason.

They have to keep winning because, even if they sweep the last six games of the season, it’s possible that the Penguins wouldn’t have enough points to get past the four teams they are chasing. Yes, they have games against Detroit and the Islanders, but they don’t have any more against Philadelphia or Washington. As critical as wins would be against those opponents, they need help from other teams to hold back the ones that they have no control over. Last night the Flyers were in Buffalo while the Capitals visited Carolina and the Rangers visited Detroit. Tonight the Blue Jackets host Philadelphia while the Islanders host Nashville. While they would certainly be happy if all those teams lose every game they play (can both teams lose the same game?), Pittsburgh will definitely be safe if they end up with two more wins than the four teams ahead of them.

They have to keep winning because at this point making the playoffs is the only way anyone will be satisfied with the outcome of this season. If they end the season in the same place they are right now, not only will they not make the playoffs but they will also very likely give up their first round pick to the San Jose Sharks thanks to the Erik Karlsson trade. That would be the worst case scenario possible, as Karlsson hasn’t had a Norris-worthy season at best, and general manager Kyle Dubas will be buried in the frustration of a fanbase that had no reason to expect these Penguins to be worse than Ron Hextall’s.

Tonight the Penguins face a Tampa Bay Lightning team which is also getting hot at an opportune time: since the last time they lost consecutive games (a 3-2 overtime loss against the Sabres on February 29), the Bolts are 11-2-1, just one point behind the Dallas Stars for the best record in the League in that timeframe. Their special teams have been outstanding since March 1: their power play success rate is third-best at nearly 30%, and their League-best penalty kill is a ridiculous 2 for 44 with three shorthanded goals for, a net penalty kill success rate of 102.3%. While tonight may not be the most critical game for either team, Tampa Bay is the toughest opponent Pittsburgh will face for the rest of the season. A win for the Penguins tonight would be a big step towards showing they’re up to any challenge at this point.