The Pittsburgh Penguins may have lobbied themselves out of the soft Central Division, where the NHL originally placed them and negotiated themselves into the hockey equivalent of the heavyweight class, Atlantic Division. As a result, their 14-year playoff streak, which is the longest active streak in the NHL, is in real trouble.
This ain’t going to be easy, and the recent numbers suggest the Penguins are the odd team out.
As part of the new NHL schedule, the eight-team divisions will exclusively play within the division. Each team will play their division rivals eight times (the seven-team North Division comprised of Canadian teams will play each other nine or 10 times).
The top four teams in each division make the playoffs. There are no wild cards. It’s a direct harken back to the 1980s when the Penguins were one of the better teams in the NHL but the fifth-best team in the Patrick Division. In 1987-88, the Penguins earned 81 points (in the days before shootouts, that was a lot) but missed the Patrick Division playoffs by one point.
The Hartford Whalers of the Adams Division made the playoffs with just 77 points. Such occurrences were not uncommon. Get ready for more.
If you are just rejoining the hockey coverage (welcome back!), the Penguins will play eight games against the reigning President’s Trophy-winning Boston Bruins, the reigning Metro Division winner Washington Capitals, the 2020 Metro Division runners up Philadelphia Flyers, the always disciplined and tough New York Islanders, and the vastly improved New York Rangers who snagged the first overall pick, Alexis Lafreniere.
The Penguins’ only soft spots on the schedule may be games against the Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils.
Of the eight teams in the Atlantic Division, six were in the 2020 NHL postseason, and it is likely under normal circumstances that five would have made the playoffs. The Rangers made a late charge and could have been the sixth team to make the playoffs.
There isn’t a tougher division in the NHL.
Every streak will someday end. The Pittsburgh Penguins have played in the NHL postseason for 14 straight years, even if they failed to advance from the Qualifying Round to Round One of the NHL playoffs in August. The streak is the longest for the Penguins franchise and is the longest streak since the salary cap era began in 2005, though it pales compared to the Detroit Red Wings’ 25-season run, which spanned from 1991 well into the salary cap era and ended in 2016.
And the Penguins’ streak is in real danger of coming to an end during the 56-game 2020-21 NHL season unless the Penguins significantly improve their play against division rivals. A record bubbling around .500 won’t do much in the rock-em sock-em Atlantic Division.
Pittsburgh Penguins Record vs. Atlantic Division Opponents
|New York Islanders||1||0||2||3||11||12|
|New York Rangers||0||0||1||1||2||3|
|New Jersey Devils||2||1||0||4||10||5|
In addition to the near-.500 record, the Penguins were also outscored by their opponents, who now comprise the entirety of their schedule.
The Penguins will be a different team than they were in 2019-20, but the great unknown is if they will be better. Injuries devastated the older roster last season, and changes were needed. But did GM Jim Rutherford get it right? The Penguins are younger and clearly faster with the additions of Kasperi Kapanen for Sidney Crosby’s right wing and defenseman Mike Matheson for the third pairing.
Both are in their mid-20s and blazingly fast, though Matheson must reverse his career’s downward trend over the past two seasons.
While the Penguins had a losing record against three teams, the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders had a losing record against only one team in the new Atlantic division. Washington was 11-10-2 with a -2 goal differential, and NYI was a shockingly good 11-6-3 with an even-Stephen +0 goal differential.
The Philadelphia Flyers clocked in at 11-5-3 with a +15 goal differential. However, it should be noted the Philadelphia stats were inflated by an extraordinary six-week run that catapulted them from out of the playoffs to second place. Philadelphia was 18-5-1 in their final 24 games.
Perhaps more than any team, the pandemic pause both slowed the Philadelphia momentum or perhaps prevented them from regressing to the mean. The beauty is in the eye of the beholder with Philadelphia, but they should be much improved as young goalie Carter Hart grows into his potential.
As the runaway President’s Trophy winner, the Boston Bruins laid waste to the division competition. They were 14-2-5.
Fortunately, you don’t need a calculator to see the Penguins were just below the line. The Washington Capitals were just above the line, while NYI and Philadelphia were well above the line.
For the record, the Penguins were 11-6-5 against the realigned Central Division with a +9 goal differential.
The revamped, younger, faster but unproved Penguins will have eight games against T.J. Oshie, Tom Wilson, and the Washington Capitals. They will have eight games against the rigidly structured and gritty New York Islanders. The suddenly potent New York Rangers will ample scoring and a stacked blue line (and no longer worried about appeasing an aging Henrik Lundqvist in goal). The thunderously physical and deep Boston Bruins with the best first line in hockey (Pastrnak-Bergeron-Marchand) also awaits.
The Penguins could have played in the Central Division. Instead of the Carolina Hurricanes, the Penguins could have faced the rebuilding Chicago Blackhawks, the always tough but less talented Columbus Blue Jackets, reigning Western Conference champion Dallas Stars, the historically bad Detroit Red Wings, perennial underachieving Florida Panthers, the declining Nashville Predators, and the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Penguins would have been an easy playoff projection in that division. In the words of John Belushi, “But, nooooooo…”
Eight teams will enter the Atlantic Division Thunderdome, but only four will leave. The odds are not in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ favor.
If they do miss the playoffs, remember, the Pittsburgh Penguins asked for this.