The Pittsburgh Penguins are back in playoff position. How long they stay, there is the question.
Incredibly, a mere two points separate five teams in the Metropolitan division. The Penguins are close to the top of that crowd, but it would only take two or three losses to fall several points behind the pack. Every point is precious.
The Penguins have a distinct advantage over any team they are competing against in their division: They dominate the Metro Division. They will need to do so down the stretch, as the Penguins are clinging to a franchise-record 12th straight playoff berth.
Last season, second wild-cards in the Eastern Conference (Toronto) and Western Conference (Calgary) had 95 and 94 points, respectively. For the Penguins to reach that bare minimum threshold, they will need 40 points in their remaining 32 games. That translates to about 18 wins and four overtime loses; 18-10-4.
And that’s assuming direct competitors don’t get hot.
Tight Metropolitan Standings
The Metropolitan Division is a traffic jam. Just 11 points separate the top (Washington) and bottom (Carolina).
As we documented this week, the Penguins are at a disadvantage because they’ve played more games than anybody in the league, and did so at times when they were playing poorly. With Tuesday’s victory, Pittsburgh moved into a tie for the third place in the division, but the Blue Jackets, Flyers, Rangers and Islanders all have games in hand over the Penguins. Once they catch up in games played, Pittsburgh could easily be outside the playoff picture.
That’s looking at the glass half empty. Want a more positive spin? Games in hand only matter if the team wins.
The Blue Jackets, Rangers and Islanders have all won just four of their last 10. The Devils are 2-6-2 in the previous 10 and are just a point in front of the Penguins. It cannot be assumed all (or any for that matter) those teams will take advantage of the games in hand.
As crazy as it sounds, the division title isn’t out of reach for Pittsburgh. Last season at the All-Star break, the Penguins were seven points behind the Washington Capitals and three behind Columbus. It’s still possible Pittsburgh is just four back heading into this year’s break. There are more teams to climb this season, but the Penguins are closer to the top of the Metro than they were a year ago.
Metro Division Games Count Twice
With so many teams on top of each other in the standings, every Metropolitan game is even more critical.
Therein lies the advantage the Penguins will have down the stretch. Pittsburgh is 10-4-0 against division opponents this season. Two of those losses have come at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes, who are currently the last of the competitive Metro teams. The Penguins were able to slay that dragon Tuesday, 3-1.
The 10-4-0 record inside the most competitive division isn’t an outlier for Pittsburgh. Last season, the Penguins were 20-8-2 versus the Metro, and the season before, they were 19-9-2.
There’s no doubt the Penguins must find more consistency, but their ability to play well against the division has kept them in the playoff race. With a schedule loaded with Metro games down the stretch, winning division games — and doing it in regulation to avoid giving loser points — is vital to another Stanley Cup bid.
Penguins Control Their Destiny
It’s not quite the slate Pittsburgh faced during the spring of 2016 — when the Penguins played 18 division games after the All-Star break –but after the break this season, Pittsburgh has 14 division games remaining.
At the start of February, Pittsburgh will have 30 games left, meaning almost half are against Metropolitan opponents.
Two seasons ago, the Penguins caught fire. They won 14 of 15 in March and early April. Ten of those 14 victories were against Metro teams. After the All-Star break in 2015-16, Pittsburgh went 13-5-0 inside the division.
As Doc Emerick likes to say — that is history not prophecy — but if history can tell us anything, the Penguins rise to the occasion against the Metropolitan. If they do so again this spring, not only is a playoff spot within reach after a sluggish first half, home ice in the first round isn’t out of the question either.