Stanley Cup Playoffs: Pittsburgh Penguins Beaten Down, But With A Real Shot To Advance


Apr 11, 2015; Buffalo, NY, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins celebrate a victory against the Buffalo Sabres at First Niagara Center. Pittsburgh beats Buffalo 2 to 0. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

It was bizarre to see the Pittsburgh Penguins look so vulnerable over the previous three weeks, but this sagging team has accomplished the most important objective of any regular season: qualifying for the playoffs.

They made it in, and Pens fans should know by now that seedings mean very little in the modern NHL. After all, Pittsburgh has had home ice in its past nine series, but has won just four of those.

But looking beyond the local franchise, there are several other factors that indicate the increasingly uncertain nature of the Stanley Cup playoffs could be even more accentuated this spring.

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First of all, hockey has been proven to have relatively little home-team advantage, especially when compared with soccer, basketball and football. Secondly, the NHL is as low-scoring as it’s been in more than a decade, and fewer goals means games are closer by default.

This year’s standings are just as relevant, though.

From the President’s Cup-winning New York Rangers on down to the “worst” team to make the playoffs, the Calgary Flames, the 16-team postseason field was separated by just 16 points. According to James Mirtle of the Toronto Globe and Mailthat’s the tightest gap since the NHL started inviting 16 teams to the party.

All of this portends well for a team like the Pens, who suffered through a 3-9-2 slump before scoring a win at Buffalo on the season’s final day to secure the Eastern Conference’s second wild-card berth.

Forget all the talk about the Pens not having to deal with the “burden” of being a favorite. That may be the case, but the tangible fact is that there has never been a better time to be the underdog in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Of course, this current state of affairs doesn’t mitigate the loss of star defenseman Kris Letang to a season-ending concussion. It also doesn’t heal Evgeni Malkin‘s mystery ailment or boost the Penguins’ recent shooting percentage back to typical levels.

Furthermore, all the “anything can happen” talk in the world can’t erase the memory of the Penguins nearly wasting a terrific start to the season under first-year head coach Mike Johnston. Somehow, the Pens blew four multiple-goal leads in a stretch of eight games, making what should have been a cruise to the postseason into a nail-biting slog.

The worst of those collapses came last Tuesday, when the Senators stole an overtime victory despite the Pens scoring the night’s first three goals. Although their odds to make the playoffs were still above 90 percent after that letdown, it nevertheless marked the first time in recent memory that missing the postseason seemed feasible.

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  • Luckily the Bruins were struggling just as much, or else the Sens’ improbable surge would have knocked the Pens out. As it stands, Pittsburgh drew the Rangers for a first-round matchup that looks like a mismatch based on how the two teams finished the season.

    But upon further inspection, the Pens were one of the strongest puck-possession teams in the league this season, which aligns with the way Johnston wants to play. On the other hand, the Rangers rode strong goaltending and shooting efficiency to their league-leading 53 wins.

    Possession metrics – especially non-blocked shot attempts (Fenwick) – have been more predictive of playoff series winners than any other measure, so the Pens have one major part of the matchup going for them, despite their flaws.

    There’s no rule that says the Pens will start burying pucks like they did early in the season, and there’s no guarantee the Rangers will stop. However, the odds are that Pittsburgh will make its Metropolitan Division rival sweat in the upcoming best-of-seven series.

    The Penguins have looked as impotent in these recent days as any stretch since 2005-06, but it’s shaping up to be an exciting next week or so.

    Next: Hounds salvage draw with late rally in St. Louis