Well, it took a while, but the Pens finally decided to give some of their most overworked players a valuable night off Sunday in Colorado. Despite missing Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz, Brooks Orpik and Olli Maatta – all of whom could’ve likely skated if necessary – Pittsburgh picked up an unlikely 3-2 shootout win against the playoff-bound Avalanche.
Sunday’s game was the last of 14 in a 22-day span for the Penguins (50-24-5, 105 points), their busiest such stretch of the year. They’ll get an opportunity to reset before hosting Detroit on Wednesday to start a season-ending three-game homestand.
But even if the Pens’ schedule hadn’t been particularly hectic lately, it was the right call for Dan Bylsma and his staff to stick Crosby, Kunitz, Orpik and Maatta in the Pepsi Center press box. It’s been about a week since Pittsburgh locked up the No. 2 seed in the upcoming Eastern Conference playoff bracket, decreasing motivation to baseline levels recently.
Competitive pride aside, it’s in the Penguins’ best interests to be as fresh as possible for the start of the postseason next week. Kudos to the team for being open-minded enough to scratch some of its best players instead of pushing them back out on the ice for the sake of routine.
If that took some of the luster away from Pittsburgh’s first trip to Denver in a couple years, so be it. Although it would’ve been fun to see the Pens and Avalanche clash at full capacity (the sidelined Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang excepted), there was no legitimate reason to further tax important players if they’re feeling a little banged up.
Plus, as we saw Sunday, the absence of four key skaters seemed to push the other Penguins to a higher level of play. Brandon Sutter netted a pair of goals while playing 23 minutes, James Neal had his most effective game in a while, and Marc-Andre Fleury was at his absolute best.
Maybe the team can use the victory as a rallying point after a stretch of play that has been mostly devoid of emotional import. It’s clearly been difficult for the Pens to muster playoff levels of passion with next to nothing on the line.
The postseason is close enough that the intensity will naturally start to rise. That begins with a midweek visit from the Red Wings, who remain the Penguins’ most likely first-round opponent; a Pittsburgh-Detroit matcup is a 55 percent probability according to Sports Club Stats.
Thanks to a wise decision by Pens management, the team has no excuse for lacking energy in the final week of the regular season.