Although they’re skating away with the Metropolitan Division and lead the Eastern Conference standings by five points as of Wednesday afternoon, most observers would say the Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t playing their best hockey.
That’s an even stranger thought when you consider the Pens have lost but three times in regulation since 2014 began, going 10-3-1 over the past five weeks.
Maybe the disheartening nature of Pittsburgh’s defeats over that span has unfairly colored perceptions. Mixed in with the 10 victories are the following: an overtime loss to lowly Edmonton, an embarrassing home display against Florida, a blanking at the hands of Dallas and an uninspiring loss at Phoenix.
Also, if we’re being completely honest, a couple of the wins have been questionable, most notably a 6-5 decision over Winnipeg just after the new year and a dull shutout of Buffalo last Monday. Their record aside, it’s tough to dispute the Penguins have been looking rather lukewarm as the Olympic break draws near.
But if we can step away from the tyranny of appearances, Pittsburgh has indeed steadied itself lately. According to Fenwick Close, which is accepted as one of the truer measures for how well a team is controlling play in meaningful situations, the Penguins have been on the plus side in eight of their past 11 games.
Take away the Dallas game, in which the Penguins mustered just 22 percent of non-blocked shot attempts with the game in the balance, and they’ve been above or near the break-even point over the past three weeks. Because of this trend, their 10-game rolling Fenwick Close chart has nosed into positive territory for the first time since mid-December:
What does it all mean? Maybe not much, with two games to play before the NHL goes on its Sochi hiatus. The Penguins, like the other 29 teams, will have to recreate their cohesiveness following the Olympics, so we could have some sloppy play carry into early March.
The good news? There will be 24 games left for the Penguin to get the edge back before the Stanley Cup playoffs. With the long term in mind, a slow climb back toward peak efficiency could be ideal.
Tonight’s Game: Penguins (39-15-2, 80 points – 1st Metropolitan) vs. Sabres (15-32-8, 38 points – 8th Atlantic) at Buffalo’s First Niagara Center. Faceoff is set for 7:30 p.m. with NBC Sports Network covering the game nationwide. Locally, 105.9 The X has the radio call.
Marc-Andre Fleury and Ryan Miller are the presumed starters in goal. Penguins forward Taylor Pyatt will be out with a lower-body injury he suffered early in Monday’s win over Ottawa, while Harry Zolnierczyk was recalled from the AHL to take the place of the demoted Andrew Ebbett. Matt Niskanen and Chris Kunitz are questionable.
Sidney Crosby hasn’t recorded a point in his last two games, but he still maintains an 11-point lead over Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf in the race for the Art Ross Trophy. Pittsburgh is 11-4 in its past 15 meetings with Buffalo, including a 6-2 mark in western New York.