Gameday 81: Penultimatum

The second-to-last game of the regular season, and the last home game as well, for the Pittsburgh Penguins as they host a Chicago Blackhawks team that is tied for the worst record in the League with the Penguins’ final opponent (which they’ll face on Thursday night), the Columbus Blue Jackets. On paper, there is no good excuse for Pittsburgh to lose these last two games, in particular tonight as it is the last home game. A loss in either of these last two games will sharply reduce their odds of making the playoffs, down to exactly 0% if they lose both, and even if they win both games they need either the New York Islanders or the Florida Panthers to lose one of their last two games. Ideally, the Penguins win out and both the Islanders and Panthers lose a game, setting up Pittsburgh to face the Metropolitan Division winner and, more critically, avoid a first round matchup with a Boston Bruins team that is on the cusp of having the best regular season of all time.

(Ed: after last night, things are looking better for the Penguins. Washington beat the Islanders 5-2, while Florida lost in overtime 2-1 against Toronto. Florida is now at 92 points, New York at 91, and Pittsburgh at 90. Pittsburgh still needs to win tonight and Thursday if they want a shot at the first Wild Card, but they still also need Florida to lose in any fashion against Carolina on Thursday because Florida holds the tiebreaker over the Penguins. The Islanders play Montreal tomorrow night, and they need to win to keep their playoff hopes alive.)

I say “ideally the Penguins win out” but it is not exactly a black-and-white positive/negative situation. If they do make the playoffs, Pittsburgh is not likely to give whoever they face in the first round very much of a hard time and we’ll have to suffer through another four to seven games of what will probably end up being a disappointing showing. Of course we’ll watch or listen or follow, and stress out all the while, and hope for playoff luck to swing the Penguins’ way, because that’s what we’re meant to do as fans. Maybe they’ll be 100% healthy; maybe they’ll regress positively; maybe Tristan Jarry will channel Patrick Roy or Martin Brodeur or 2016-17 playoffs Matt Murray and be lights out; and maybe all of these things will happen simultaneously and the Pittsburgh Penguins will tear through the playoffs on their way to another Stanley Cup. I guess, as Kevin Garnett would say, anything is possible!

If Pittsburgh doesn’t make the playoffs, well, the good news is that they’ll be done and we can all move on with our springs and summers without the stress of playoff hockey, but the failure of making the playoffs for the first time since the 2005-06 season will be certain to have ramifications on the franchise in general. Despite trying to hold the door open on the Crosby/Malkin/Letang era, this supporting cast of this team was shoddily constructed, and even the talented players generally underperformed in a way that severely hamstrung the team’s chances. Normally, missing the playoffs would be a signal to ownership to perform a reboot of some kind. While I’m certain that whatever happens to this team in the remainder of its time playing will see the end of Ron Hextall’s tenure as general manager, I’m not so confident that the next man up will be able to turn this team around by next year.


Tonight being the last home game of the season, it is also fan appreciation night. We are a spoiled bunch, and we know it. Depending on how long you have been watching the Penguins, they’ve either won two, three, or even five Stanley Cups in the last 32 years. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are two of the game’s all time greats, with Crosby heading towards probably being in the top ten and certainly Malkin being in the top 101 100, but they are definitely two of the Penguins’ top four players of all time, and we’ve gotten to watch them play together for all of the last sixteen years. We’re lucky that they’ll both still be playing for Pittsburgh until the day they retire, even if they’re not as productive as they were in their primes, but we’re also lucky that they’ve both played every game this season, something that has never happened but has come close only three other times in their careers. Let’s hope the team makes the best of it, somehow.