This just in: The Penguins are human. Sometimes, very much so. It’s been showing lately. You only have to look at some of the team’s results from the past four weeks to see the pattern.
They have lost to or won in overtime against the Islanders (twice), the Rangers, Calgary and Detroit – all teams on the outside looking in in terms of the playoffs. The Penguins also have big wins or overtime losses against New Jersey and Philadelphia, twice each — Metropolitan Division rivals that, like the Penguins, are jostling for playoff spots and positioning.
Whether it’s because of adrenalin or motivation or matchups, the Penguins have had a tendency to play better in games where more is at stake, and lack urgency against teams further down in the standings.
“I definitely think that it’s a little bit of human nature,” Penguins winger Bryan Rust said Saturday after the morning skate at PPG Paints Arena. “We see a team that may not be playing for a whole lot and maybe we have let up a little bit for whatever reason, subconsciously or whatever it is.
“But we do need to try and keep that killer instinct and keep that hungry mindset like we had last game against New Jersey.”
The Penguins felt great about their 4-3 overtime road win Thursday against the Devils. They might have matched that emotional level, but in the other direction, in 5-2 dud Tuesday at Detroit that left them fuming at themselves.
Canadiens Could Be Tricky
The pattern hasn’t been absolute, especially against tonight’s opponent, the Montreal Canadiens, who are out of the playoff picture. The Penguins have beaten the Canadiens twice in the past 2-1/2 weeks, both by scores of 5-3.
They will need to avoid this being something of a trap game, with Washington scheduled to visit Sunday night. The Capitals sit first in the Metro. So will human nature be a nagging seventh man again?
“It shouldn’t be,” Penguins winger Patric Hornqvist said, although he allowed that also-ran clubs present certain problems, thanks to their own human nature.
“The thing is, when you play these teams that are out of the playoffs, they cheat a little bit,” he said. “It’s not the same kind of game.
“But at the same time, we have to make sure we do the same things out there. We can’t control what the other teams do to us. We have to control the things we’re doing, and that’s working hard and being hard on pucks and finishing our checks and all that. If we do that, I like our chances.”
An added source of motivation against the Canadiens could be that with a win, the Penguins will clinch a playoff spot, thanks to Boston’s win over Florida earlier in the day,
“That’s what we play for,” Hornqvist said of snaring a postseason spot.
There’s another element that can make games against lower-echelon clubs tougher. That is, what works against the Penguins can work for those teams.
“You play a lot of teams that are out of the playoffs, and they’ve got a lot of guys you don’t really know, a lot of young guys, a lot of new guys in the lineup,” Penguins defenseman Jamie Oleksiak said. “Those guys are trying to prove something. I think they also play a looser game. They’re not as predictable, which is tough to play against.”
Remaining Games Split Down Middle
The Penguins have four games left before, presumably, the playoffs and the quest for their third straight Stanley Cup. Those four games are split between the two flavors of clubs – Washington and another Metro team vying for playoff positioning, Columbus, Thursday on the road; and Montreal and, in the final regular-season home game Friday, Ottawa.
“We’ve got to play Washington and Columbus, ‘position games’ coming up, but then two teams, again, new faces, a lot of guys playing for jobs, playing just for pride,” Oleksiak said. “You don’t know a lot of guys in the lineup. That’s always tough. You don’t know certain guys’ tendencies. You don’t know if a guy’s a grinder or if he’s a skill guy.”
But the Penguins know their game well. That’s something they can use in combination with mustering a high level of emotion in all four remaining games.
“We’ve got to find a way to get up for games even if it’s against an opponent that isn’t in the playoff race,” center Riley Sheahan said. “The points are huge for us right now. We want to finish the season off strong and get some momentum.”