Pittsburgh Penguins Stumble Their Way Into Meaningful Regular-Season Hockey


Apr 5, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Flyers goalie Steve Mason (35) makes a save against Pittsburgh Penguins center Brandon Sutter (16) during the first period at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since the Pittsburgh Penguins won their third Stanley Cup nearly six years ago, the NHL regular season has been reduced to a glorified exhibition in these parts.

Even in 2010-11, when Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were both lost to season-ending injuries midway through, the infrastructure and supporting cast was still good enough to make the playoffs as the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference.

Since returning to prominence nine years ago, the lowest the Penguins have finished in the East was fifth, and that was way back in 2006-07. In short, the Pens haven’t had to sweat a non-playoff game in quite some time, dating back to their memorable 25-game sprint under fresh-faced head coach Dan Bylsma in the spring of ’09.

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This season’s group is trending in the opposite direction of the franchise’s most recent championship team, as a 3-8-1 record since March 14 has dropped the Pens (42-26-11, 95 points) to fourth in the Metropolitan Division and a three-way tie for sixth in the conference with Detroit and Boston.

However, the real number to keep in mind is two, as in the two points that separate the Pens, Wings and Bruins from the hard-charging Ottawa Senators, who are one win away from potentially vaulting into a tie for the East’s final wild-card spot.

Dramatically enough, the next game on Pittsburgh’s schedule is at Ottawa Tuesday night, in what is shaping up to be the Pens’ first truly significant regular-season matchup of the current decade.

How did they arrive at this point of desperation? Wasn’t it only a week ago that the Pens had seemingly corrected their errant course with back-to-back wins over Phoenix and San Jose?

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  • A lackluster loss to the Flyers last Wednesday set up a two-game weekend, featuring trips to division foes Columbus and Philadelphia. Gaining three standings points from those games would have essentially locked up a playoff spot, but after a pair of regulation losses, there is suddenly real doubt about the mid-April booking schedule at Consol Energy Center.

    Those twin defeats were frustrating for completely different reasons.

    On Saturday, the Penguins squandered a 2-0 lead for the third time in six games, showing a remarkable lack of defensive poise as the streaking Jackets pilfered two points with a 5-3 decision in Columbus. Sunday in Philly was a completely different story, as the Pens did everything right except score, somehow losing despite generating 47 shots on goal.

    The defeat at the hands of the Flyers was particularly confounding, as dominance didn’t translate into results. On the other hand, we saw once again how much more dangerous this team is with both Crosby and Malkin in the lineup.

    It’s no secret that these Pens are built around their two exemplary centermen, so it should be no surprise that they struggle when one or the other is out. Recent struggles aside, Pittsburgh is 9-2-1 in its last 12 games that feature both Crosby and Malkin.

    For as poor as some of their performances have been lately, the Pens should have at least a 50-50 shot against any East playoff team when Sid and Geno are healthy. Here’s a tweet from Adam Gretz of CBS Sports to further illustrate the point:

    Furthermore, even looking beyond the Crosby/Malkin factor, the Pens have been shooting at around a 5 percent rate over the past month or so. Even the worst shooting teams in the league are nowhere near that rate for the entire season, so it follows that if Pittsburgh keeps getting chances, the puck will eventually start going in more.

    Also, as a counter to the current sinking feeling in the standings, take a moment to consider the odds.

    According to both Sports Club Stats and HockeyStats.ca, the Pens still have a 94 percent chance to make the playoffs in some form or fashion. Not only do they hold a two-point lead over Ottawa with three games to play, they also own the tiebreak (total non-shootout wins) over the Sens, so it’s effectively a three-point advantage.

    Now, the upcoming head-to-head matchup against the Sens still looms large. A regulation loss to Ottawa, which hasn’t won in regulation in its past seven games, would reduce those playoff chances closer to the 50 percent barrier.

    But if Crosby and Malkin can manage to stay on the ice over the final three regular-season games, it would still be an incredible long shot to miss out on the tournament.