CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — With a regulation win Thursday in Columbus, the Penguins will clinch home-ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Sounds like a time for a coach to put his best lineup on the ice. Apparently, that lineup will include former depth defenseman Chad Ruhwedel, who took Matt Hunwick‘s place in the Penguins’ top six during Wednesday’s practice at Lemieux Sports Complex.
Mike Sullivan doesn’t confirm lineup decisions before a given game, so we’ll have to wait for another day, but it appears Hunwick — the Penguins’ biggest free-agent acquisition of last summer — will be in the press box at the most important time of the year. Hunwick was a healthy scratch for four weeks before playing in the past three games.
Hunwick, 32, wasn’t available to reporters Wednesday, but recently expressed disdain with his performance season. He didn’t do much to distinguish himself in his recent opportunity to get into the playoff lineup, so it’s back to the 27-year-old Ruhwedel, who couldn’t even find a spot in the Sabres lineup as recently as two years ago.
Now, he’s poised to get a sweater as the Penguins go for what would be a historic three-peat.
“It’s a fast-paced, move-the-puck-north, good-skating team,” Ruhwedel said of the Penguins, for whom he’s played 82 games over the past two seasons. “That’s the type of game I try to play, so I think it’s been a good fit so far.”
The 5-foot-11 Ruhwedel was paired with the 6-foot-7 Jamie Oleksiak during Wednesday’s workout. Those two are practically opposites, with Oleksiak struggling to harness his obvious physical gifts over his NHL career, while it could be said Ruhwedel has squeezed the most out of an unremarkable skill set.
“Obviously, we have some elite players on this team,” Ruhwedel said. “It brings out the best in you. When you’re vibing with a good team, a good system that’s winning, it brings a lot of confidence.”
Ruhwedel can be susceptible to losing battles in his own zone, but he moves the puck quickly and plays a lower-risk game than Hunwick has this season. Ruhwedel has two goals and three assists in 42 games this season, with an even-strength shot share about 1 percent below the Penguins’ team-wide rate.
He said he’s had to raise his level with Pittsburgh, due to the expectations inherent with playing for the Penguins at this point in time. It’s not all fun and games, he reminded Pittsburgh Hockey Now.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Ruhwedel said. “Guys want to win. Yeah, it can be easier to play that way, but you’re expected to win, also. If things aren’t going well, it can be negative on you, too. But so far it’s been good.”
The same can’t be said for Hunwick, who’s missed a few weeks due to multiple injuries and hasn’t been able to find his fit in the Penguins’ system after enjoying moderate success with up-tempo Toronto previously. Pittsburgh signed Hunwick to a three-year contract worth $2.25 million annually, a deal that seemed to carry more possible reward than risk at the time.
He’s chipped in four goals and six assists in 42 games, but the Penguins’ shot share is about 4 percent worse when he’s on the ice, one of the worst marks on the team.
Frankly, the Penguins as a team haven’t performed as expected at even strength for most of the season, although they’ve been more consistent in the second half than a first half that put them on the outside of the playoff field.
Now that they’ve qualified for the franchise’s 12th consecutive postseason berth, Ruhwedel said the dangling Cup carrot has been inspirational.
“There’s been stretches where we haven’t been our best, but we’ve also had some really good stretches where we’ve showed our true colors,” he said. “This team’s been battle-tested in recent years. Everybody’s starting to get really excited for the coming games here.”
Stakes are High, Pens PK Success
• Yes, the Penguins are aware of what’s at stake Thursday, but Bryan Rust said he hasn’t exactly gone over all the possible first-round permutations in his mind. With less than a week to go, the Penguins could play six different teams to open the playoffs, including the Bruins and Lightning over in the Atlantic Division, if the champs sag to the finish.
“I’ve seen the standings,” Rust said. “I try not to work out the possibilities. A whole lot can happen here.”
I’ll say. The Capitals have clinched the division and the Panthers are still in it for the Eastern Conference’s final wild card, but the story right now is the tightness at the top of the Metropolitan Division:
The Penguins hold an insurmountable lead over their pursuers in the first tiebreak — ROW, or regulation plus overtime wins — but anything from second to fifth place is still possible with two games to play. The Blue Jackets’ four-goal comeback against Detroit on Tuesday makes them the clear favorite to face the Penguins, a 55 percent likelihood per Sports Club Stats.
“Us two, and a couple of other teams are kinda jockeying for position,” Rust said. “And we want the best possible position. We’ve got to play well.”
• For all the attention the Penguins’ 0-for-5 power-play performance got on Sunday night, the Penguins’ penalty killers held the dangerous Capitals’ advantage to zero conversions on five opportunities.
For a unit that’s seen better days, that was an accomplishment. Prior to Sunday, the Penguins had allowed at least one power-play goal to enter their net in 10 of the previous 11 games.
“For us, we were just working hard,” explained Rust, a regular penalty killer. “We weren’t really overthinking things. We were just anticipating and we were just kinda using our hockey sense. Just, go get it done. Before, we might’ve been hesitating a little bit and I think we’re trying to get it out of our system.”
Playoff Atmosphere in Columbus
• Ruhwedel summed up the Penguins’ feelings on Columbus thusly: “It’s always a spirited battle against them.”
Maybe not so much in the two teams’ most recent matchup, a 5-2 Penguins win in Columbus on Feb. 18, but overall the tenor of this developing rivalry has been intense. With a third playoff matchup in five seasons looming, that should mean more feistiness than usual.
“Whenever you get down the stretch, they’re all playoff-game types of feelings,” said Jake Guentzel, whose hat trick sunk the Jackets in Game 3 of the first round a year ago. “Obviously, it’s been a dogfight.”
For a team that’s had a hard time getting its competitive focus honed for certain games, it should be beneficial to face the kind of feverish atmosphere sure to be in store at Nationwide Arena on Thursday — both in the stands and on the ice. Not that a couple of recent games against playoff contenders New Jersey and Washington have been lacking for intensity, anyway.
“I think it’s just playing hard and chipping bodies,” Guentzel said. “It’s tough in the playoffs. Tough to get to the front of the net. Columbus is going to do the same thing tomorrow night.”