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NHL Playoffs

Finally, Penguins Feel a Playoff Spark, ‘We Have a Job to Do’

The Penguins have taken down the white flag and raised the battle flag, at least for a few more days.



CRANBERRY — If this were NASCAR, the Pittsburgh Penguins would have finally caught the draft, and the playoff pack is within sight. Perhaps even to their surprise, the Penguins are only five points out of a playoff spot with upcoming games against those very rivals.

To continue the analogy, despite an ill-handling car and mechanical problems, the Penguins have held on long enough for less talented teams in front of them to discover the same struggles, pre and post-NHL trade deadline, that created a crestfallen version of the Penguins.

The Philadelphia Flyers have lost two of their last three, giving up seven goals to the Tampa Bay Lightning and six to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The New York Islanders have been shut out twice in a row.

Thursday night, the Penguins wobbled and bobbled through 40 minutes against the woeful San Jose Sharks. And then they captured something that more closely resembled their best game in weeks. They closed out San Jose with a trio of third period goals.

“I think there was (and) there should be a little bit of a spark and certain energy I think you get from that (third period),” captain Sidney Crosby said. “Understanding you’re a little bit closer, and you get some help. It’s up to us to make the most of that opportunity. It doesn’t always work out that way (but) you get help, and we have to make the most of it.”

And for at least a day, there was a flicker of hope, a spark after everyone from the president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas to fans had poured cold water on their chances. Of course, the Penguins roller coaster has a huge weekend with games against the first-place New York Rangers on Saturday and the greatly improved (though struggling) Detroit Red Wings on Sunday.

Having been counted out, somehow, the Penguins find themselves with a chance. And it’s not the facetious chance of Lloyd and Harry, but a realistic opportunity that will only be rewarded with a few wins.

And they have the chance they squandered in Calgary on March 2 to build on a good third period and victory.

“Despite whatever’s gone on in the past, whatever has gone on with the (trade) deadline, everything like that, it’s all wiped away,” said Bryan Rust. “We have a job to do in front of us, and there’s a real opportunity for us to string some good hockey together and string some wins together that we can make good, solid pushing to get into the playoffs.”

If you listened closely this week, more than a few players used past tense verbs and subtle acknowledgments that they wouldn’t get to the dance.

If you’d like an inside-the-locker room feel, this writer felt the first signs of optimism in weeks, though it’s tempered and cautious. No one is going to make a bold proclamation, certainly not with back-to-back games against good teams this weekend, but Friday was the first emergence of authentic feelings of possibility.

Why not?

Of course, nothing the Penguins have done in the last seven years has been on the shortest path. Not even their second of back-to-back Stanley Cups was on a linear path.

This season has been the most arduous of the journeys. injuries and inconsistency, age and the natural decline, and the recent soul-crushing trade of Jake Guentzel to their divisional rival Carolina Hurricanes, it was supposed to be over. Finally and officially.

Yet, with some outside help, the team has taken down the white flag and, for the moment, has again raised the battle flag.

The situation is out of their control, but not impossible. Coach Mike Sullivan has used the phrase “not insurmountable.”

While it’s not a ringing endorsement of the Penguins’ chances, heartache heals, and optimism tends to find hope, even against long odds.

“I feel like there’s more parity in the league, (more) than there has ever been. And I think the standings probably are evidence of that,” Sullivan said. “It’s hard not to scoreboard watch at this time of year. It’s part of the fun also. I’ve said this to the guys for the last couple of weeks now — We’ve got to keep fighting. We have to stay in the race … And that’s where our focus needs to be. And let’s just see where this thing goes.”

For at least a few more days, the temperate weather of western Pennsylvania has brought the hope of spring. Until now, these Penguins have treated poorly every opportunity.

But they’ve got one more.