Gameday 78: Can’t Even Pick Their Poison

Five games in nine days remain on the regular season schedule for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Most years the playoffs would be well underway by this point – in fact, the last normal postseason schedule had the Penguins swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the New York Islanders on April 16, 2019 – but COVID-19 happened and caused all kinds of delays, and now we’re still waiting. With Pittsburgh having been all but assured of their playoff berth for weeks, and clinching the spot with their 6-3 win over the Islanders last Thursday, it’s not a very exciting time. That, plus the fact that the Penguins are playing like hot garbage right now. Tristan Jarry is week-to-week with a lower-body injury he sustained in that win over the Islanders. Evgeni Malkin tonight will be serving the last of his four-game suspension for clocking Islander Mark Borowiecki in the face. Thankfully, hopefully that’s all we’ll have to hear about the Islanders on this blog for the foreseeable future, as they are not going to make the playoffs and get in Pittsburgh’s way.

Unfortunately, the Penguins are the source of their own frustrations right now. In their last 27 games, going all the way back to February 17, they are 12-12-3. More critically, in that time they are 2-5-1 against the three teams they are most likely to face in the first round of the playoffs: 1-3 against the New York Rangers; 1-1-1 against the Carolina Hurricanes; and one loss against the Florida Panthers (1-1 in their two games against each other). Not only will third-place Pittsburgh likely not catch up to the Rangers, who are nine points ahead with five games to play, but they may find themselves falling behind the Washington Capitals, now tied with Pittsburgh for third in the Metropolitan Division, into a Wild Card spot.

As things currently stand both Washington and Pittsburgh are two points behind the Boston Bruins, fourth in the Atlantic Division but now holding the first Wild Card spot. The exact playoff matchups are in flux, but as things stand the Atlantic Division Wild Card (currently Boston, but they are one point behind Tampa Bay for third) will play whoever wins the Metro Division (currently Carolina, but the Rangers have caught up to and tied them) and vice versa, meaning Pittsburgh is at risk of facing the Atlantic Division, Eastern Conference, and tied-for-League-best Florida Panthers. Or they’ll face either Carolina or the Rangers. Either way, they’re going to be the visitors, which could be the only silver lining to be had with the playoff discussion. The Penguins have fallen back a little bit with their road record but remain tied for seventh in the League. Unfortunately their probably playoff opponents are second, fourth, and sixth in the League with regards to their home records, so…

Like I said, it’s not an exciting time to be a Penguins fan. It was, back in December and January when they were tearing their way through just about everyone and they were feeling like they were capable of special things. Since mid-February though they have been suite mediocre, just a few overtime and shootout losses away from being .500. Are they totally dead? Of course not, but they need to get their shit together in a major way. Being without Jarry doesn’t have to be a disaster, but if they cannot get their offensive production going again it certainly could end up that way. The power play has been just as middling as the entire team, ranking 16th out of 32 teams despite having the third-most minutes on the man advantage. In general, Pittsburgh continues to be in a position where the top two lines are doing their jobs at even strength and on the man advantage, and the rest of the team is doing basically nothing.

All of the team’s other problems would probably be fixed if the offense is getting its job done. When the goals are going in at one end, they have the confidence to do their jobs well on defense. Everything seems to fall to shit if the shooting percentage is in the toilet. Of course the goaltending also needs to do well; even if Jarry is fit and in good form, we saw what happened last year. I think we’ve seen enough from Jarry to suspect, if not believe, that most of our concerns about him from last year could be dismissed, but we’re not talking about Jarry starting in the playoffs right now. Right now the Penguins have to ride or die with Casey DeSmith and Louis Domingue. Not great.

Pittsburgh has had the last four days off to recover and prepare themselves mentally for these last few games before the playoffs. If they don’t start playing like they’re ready for the playoffs now, they may never be ready.