With their 3-0 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday, the Pittsburgh Penguins ended the unofficial first half of their 2019-20 regular season schedule.
After fifty games completed, the Penguins are in pretty good shape, at least as far as the standings go: they are 31-14-5, with sixty-seven points, good for second in the Metropolitan Division (four points behind the division-leading Washington Capitals), third in the Eastern Conference (three points behind the Boston Bruins), and fourth in the entire League (one point behind the St. Louis Blues). It stands repeating that this is kind of amazing, considering that the Penguins have had to deal with injuries to practically everyone at one point or another. In the context of last season, when the Penguins were less banged up, those Penguins were 27-17-6 and struggling to keep themselves above water in a challenging Metropolitan Division.
Now the Penguins have a big break ahead; between the All-Star break and the “bye” week, the Penguins don’t play again until next Friday, January 31, to complete what could be the longest home-and-home in NHL history as they host the Flyers. With the exceptions of Kris Letang and Tristan Jarry, who will be in St. Louis representing the Penguins in the All-Star festivities, the remainder of the team will enjoy some much needed rest. Perhaps more importantly, the time off will allow the four Penguins who were likely to be returning to action soon – Justin Schultz, Brian Dumoulin, Dominik Kahun, and Nick Bjugstad – to further prepare for the rest of the season.
Speaking of which, it’s going to be an intense thirty-two games from January 31 until April 4. Only four of those games will come against Western Conference opponents (at Anaheim, hosting Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Jose), only one of which (the Sharks) the Penguins haven’t beaten this season. To contrast, the Penguins have yet to play a single game against their Metro Division foes from Carolina and Washington, and there are four games to play against each of them. Additionally, the Penguins have three games to play against the Rangers, two each against the Flyers and Devils, and one each against the Blue Jackets and Islanders. Pittsburgh will want to improve on their 5-2-3 record against their division rivals.
Besides those interdivisional matches, there’s a sprinkling of games against the Atlantic Division opponents: two each against Buffalo, Ottawa, Tampa Bay, and Toronto; and one each against Detroit, Montreal, and Florida. Again, Pittsburgh has mixed results against those Atlantic Division opponents, with a record of 6-4-0. Altogether, the Penguins record against their remaining opponents is 10-8-4, which is not great, especially when you consider that these are the first teams the Penguins would face on the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Is a Finals appearance such a far-fetched thought? Consider first that the Penguins are in playoff position right now, and their chances of making the playoffs are north of 95%. Second, the Penguins have played outstandingly this season in light of missing many of their key contributors at various points; in most other circumstances the team would again be struggling to stay in the playoff race. With Pittsburgh among the top four teams in the League right now, given the above, it stands to reason that they should be able to make a run for at least the Eastern Conference Finals for the sixth time in twelve seasons.
On a related topic, I wanted to discuss the main sore spot for the Penguins in the discussion of the playoffs: postseason defeats. Specifically, I wanted to accumulate a list of goaltenders against whom the Penguins have played in the playoffs and have never beaten. It’s a short, interesting list, and I bring it up for good reason.
- Jaroslav Halak (2010 ECSF, with Montreal)
Dwayne Roloson (2011 ECQF, with Tampa Bay) Ilya Bryzgalov (2012 ECQF, with Philadelphia)
- Tuukka Rask (2013 ECF, with Boston)
- Robin Lehner (2019 ECQF, with the Islanders)
First I want to point out that the struck-through players, Roloson and Bryzgalov, are no longer in the NHL. Lehner moved on to the Chicago Blackhawks this past offseason so, unless the Blackhawks and Penguins meet in the Stanley Cup Final, we won’t have to worry about him so much.
That leaves Halak and Rask, who perhaps not so coincidentally play for the same team now, the Boston Bruins. First I should dispel the notion that either goaltender is and has been particularly difficult for the Penguins; Halak’s career regular season record against the Penguins is 11-9-2, while Rask’s is 10-6-3. However, when you include their playoff records, they are the top two active goalies with a winning record against the Penguins for their careers: Rask’s record improves to a much better-sounding 14-6-3, while Halak is 15-12-2. Only Corey Crawford has better career numbers against the Penguins than Rask, who nevertheless has a .930 save percentage and a 2.16 goals against average against Pittsburgh, and Halak is not too far behind at .920 and 2.55. We’re getting ahead of ourselves if we consider the possibility of a Penguins/Bruins Eastern Conference Final, but it is something worth keeping in mind. As it stands, however, the Bruins are far and away the biggest threat in the Atlantic Division.
In the more near term though is a potential first-round rematch with the New York Islanders. Last postseason I said that the Islanders were frauds, and despite their sweep of the Penguins in the first round, New York ended up themselves getting swept in the following round by the Carolina Hurricanes. Pittsburgh had no business being in the playoffs last year, let alone being a serious contender for the Cup, but this year the story is much different for the Penguins…not so much for the Islanders. They flew off to a hot start this season, winning sixteen of their first twenty, but they have fallen well off that torrid pace, going just above .500 at 13-12-4. Their last thirty-three games feature at least one game against almost every team (not Anaheim, Florida, or Winnipeg). Interesting tidbit: their record against the Atlantic Division so far this year is 13-2-1.
Right now the second and third most likely first-round opponents for the Penguins are the Carolina Hurricanes and the Columbus Blue Jackets. Carolina has been very streaky this season, perhaps due in part to below-average goaltending from Petr Mrazek and maybe not playing James Reimer often enough. The Blue Jackets have been dealing with their own injury problems, but have been buoyed by good goaltending and are currently on a six-game winning streak heading into their “bye” week. Any of these three opponents would be a good test for the Penguins in the first round, and I feel that this year’s team would handle that test much better than last year’s. Optimistically, the Penguins would have Jake Guentzel back from his shoulder surgery by then.
At this point it is worth discussing the trade deadline, which is somehow just thirty-one days away. It’s been a quiet season in terms for trades for general manager Jim Rutherford, as he’s made just one NHL move (to send Erik Gudbranson on his way), which is neither typical for Rutherford nor surprising given the injury situation for the Penguins. However, as I indicated earlier, the team looks likely to head into February with most, if not all but one, of its injured players back in the lineup, and that should work wonders on the depth both among the forwards and defensemen. As long as the team stays healthy (hardly a guarantee, but we can cross our fingers), it will be a couple of weeks perhaps before Rutherford can really get a good idea of what the team needs to address prior to or at the deadline.
If there’s one need that’s been on everyone’s mind this season, especially given the regular season-ending injury to Guentzel, it is improving scoring from the left wing position. There are a number of impending unrestricted free agents who can play on the left side, but the challenge of course would be affording them and otherwise extricating them from teams in the playoff race themselves. The Rangers’ Chris Kreider has been one name rumored with the Penguins, but he’s on a division rival. We keep hearing about Jason Tucker coming over from Minnesota, but the Wild are not completely dead in the playoff hunt themselves.
Either Ottawa’s Vladislav Namestnikov or Tyler Ennis could be an option, as neither have no-movement clauses on their contracts and the Senators are butt, though Namestnikov being younger than Ennis makes him more attractive for everyone. Besides them, there’s a bunch of UFAs that look enticing, but again: can they be had without mortgaging the farm? Don’t forget that Rutherford sometimes likes going after guys with term left on their contracts. Montreal’s Tomas Tatar and Phillip Danault are possibilities there, or how about New Jersey’s Blake Coleman? Blackhawk Brandon Saad has already been discussed, but I think his cap hit is too much. Ultimately, I’m pretty confident that any decision Rutherford makes will be made down to the wire.
In conclusion, my biggest concern with the Penguins is their need to balance continuing to win games with staying healthy. They seem to have taken their foot off the gas in the last little while, perhaps as a measure to stay healthy heading into the break, or probably because they’ve all been busting their asses for the last few weeks. I don’t suppose you could begrudge them a couple of off games, although the crowd was a bit harsh on Matt Murray in what needed up being a 4-3 Penguins win on Sunday. They still ended up winning that game in come-from-behind fashion, so the blustering from the fans was unjustified. Regardless, the Penguins haven’t lost two games in a row since November 30, and they haven’t lost more than three in a row since the eleventh game of the season. They have played impressively thus far, and there’s no reason they can’t continue to impress in the last thirty-two games.