The Penguins open the second half of their season tonight when the Carolina Hurricanes visit PPG Paints Arena.
Given the often disappointing nature of the first half of the season, it seemed like a good time to watch the morning skate, then put a finger to the players’ necks and check the pulse. (Not literally, of course; they’re all sweaty. Yeelchh.)
They have one. A pulse, that is.
Beyond that, it’s difficult to pick up a lot of clues about what might happen in the second half. That’s because the team is saying a lot of the same things we’ve heard all season, and doing it in much the same tone. You can be the judge of whether that’s a good thing or otherwise.
If you listen closely, though, you can hear a bit more urgency and a few more qualifiers.
“I think it should be something that pushes us,” team captain Sidney Crosby said of rounding the turn. “The good teams are able to raise their level and find a second gear in the second half of the year. It’s important as the season goes on that you get better. It’s up to us to prove that and to do that.”
Other than defenseman Olli Maatta – “I don’t think I even noticed it, but you know we’re far into the season,” he said – the Penguins at least copped to realizing they are launching into the second half of the season and feel the implications of that, given that they sit outside the playoff picture.
As coach Mike Sullivan said, “Right now we have to be in a playoff mindset, and we have to make sure we bring a certain level of urgency to each and every game to give us the best chance to win.”
The Penguins are three points ahead of last-place Philadelphia in the Metropolitan Division, thanks to a 5-1 win there Tuesday that was one of their somewhat rare signature games. They also are one point behind Carolina and Friday night’s opponent, the New York Islanders.
“As far as where we are in the standings, we have to realize that time’s running out and we’ve got to make sure we come every night and make sure we get two points,” winger Conor Sheary said. “We believe in this (locker) room that we’re right in the thick of things and if we string a couple wins together, we’ll get right back in the race.”
As close as the Penguins are to the bottom of the division standings, they also are 10 points behind leader Washington in a compact race.
There could be some tweaks tonight. Defenseman Brian Dumoulin and center Carter Rowney, who left Tuesday’s game, are out. Dumoulin has a concussion, although Sullivan noted that Dumoulin is doing well and is day to day. Rowney is out at least four weeks because of an upper body injury.
To keep the fourth line of Tom Kuhnhackl, Riley Sheahan, and Ryan Reaves together – they had a strong game against the Flyers after Rowney left – the Penguins apparently will take a look at Jake Guentzel at center. He was there, between Carl Hagelin and Daniel Sprong, at the morning skate, with Dominik Simon on Crosby’s line.
Guentzel at C?
Sullivan has resisted moving Guentzel from winger in the past and still seems lukewarm to it, particularly over any long term.
“We could. We could. I suppose,” Sullivan said. “We’ll see how it plays out. But we know we have the option to use Jake at the center ice position. We chose not to, to this point because we felt as though he’s better served being on the wing, but we know that he’s capable of playing center.”
In the meantime, the Penguins have a template from last week that they want to blow up.
Coming off an inspiring 5-4 shootout win over Columbus, they not only couldn’t keep that momentum but also followed with a dud, a 2-1 loss at Carolina.
Redemption is at their doorstep now, coming off of the feel-good win at Philadelphia and facing the Hurricanes again. They certainly want to produce a different response.
“We have to,” Maatta said. “That’s as simple as it is.”