PITTSBURGH — Relax. A little, anyway. The Pittsburgh Penguins lost two straight and gained only one of four possible points this weekend in back-to-back games against St. Louis and Philadelphia. And the Penguins fan base which was only days before getting excited was again in full throat panic.
Relax. A little, anyway.
The most concerning note of the weekend was not the Ls placed on schedule but Penguins superstar Evgeni Malkin is out week-to-week. He suffered an upper-body injury Saturday, likely when St. Louis defenseman Robert Bortuzzo drilled him in the ribs with a cross-check away from the play.
The cross-check didn’t even merit a penalty, according to the on-ice officials. Go figure.
Fortunately, the Penguins have a seven-point cushion on the Montreal Canadiens, which makes the Penguins magic number 14 officially, but 13 points in reality. Montreal has 10 games remaining and may gain only 20 possible points. Even if Montreal gets 16 points in their final 20, the Penguins would need only nine points (and four regulation or overtime wins) in their final nine games to make the playoffs.
Feeling a little better?
It is important to note one shortcoming which hampered the Pittsburgh Penguins especially against Philadelphia was not a lack of effort but a personnel matter. As noted in the PHN Extra Report Card, Philadelphia typically pulled an extra defender to the low zone which allowed more space at the top of the zone.
The Penguins don’t currently have enough offensive firepower on the blue line. The only healthy Penguins offensive defenseman who is able to competently activate or pressure defenders with good shots from the point is Justin Schultz. Essentially, the Flyers took advantage of that inability to help defend what the Penguins can do well: Get to the net and dominate the low zone.
The Penguins still won more than their share of the puck battles and established outposts on the walls but the increased body count took away space to capitalize.
When Kris Letang returns, opponents will not be able to clog the low zone without consequence.
Now, the Malkin injury could be a game changer. The playoffs begin on April 10, which is over three weeks away but a week-to-week injury sounds like Malkin could miss the rest of the season and be a lingering issue or out for Round One.
Is not a second line with Bryan Rust-Nick Bjugstad-Patric Hornqvist a competent second line for most teams? Or with Dominik Simon. Teddy Blueger showed enough Sunday night that he could be a competent third line center with Phil Kessel and Rust or Simon. The Penguins will be OK without Malkin, but OK isn’t the goal.
The Penguins can not make a deep playoff run without Malkin. They could beat the New York Islanders and they would have a fighting chance against the Washington Capitals. The panic surrounding the Malkin injury and playoffs is not about making the playoffs, but about seeding.
If the Penguins limp into the playoffs as a wild-card, they would likely draw Washington in Round One but if they fall to the second wild-card–they draw Tampa Bay. AIn’t no one beating Tampa Bay in Round One.
And that becomes the Penguins challenge–to avoid the second wild-card and wait for Malkin to get healthy. As Letang returns, the Penguins will find they have another weapon. In fact, Letang’s return will blend with the Penguins rush to simplify their game, especially without Malkin.
The reality is the Penguins will likely make the playoff but cannot win a Stanley Cup without Malkin who is out weeks, not months. Letang’s re-entry into the lineup will partially offset Malkin’s loss, too.
Now, if Phil Kessel were to get hot again or at least effort to mitigate some of the loss, the Penguins are still a dangerous team. The Penguins ridiculous depth is being tested and passing with flying colors.
You can predict the sky is falling. And someday you’ll be right. The Pittsburgh Penguins have a challenge, but not one they haven’t faced before and not one which is insurmountable. The last three weeks of winning hockey have provided them enough of a cushion to figure out what comes next.
Oh, and the team still has Sidney Crosby, whose Hart Trophy credentials figure to be burnished if the Penguins maintain their playoff form.
Relax. A little, anyway.