Now is the Pittsburgh Penguins’ big chance.
Now is their moment to erase a season initiated with more bad games than good, at one recent point, more losses than wins, and more players fighting their game than enjoying it.
The Penguins are 5-1-1 in their last seven games and have overcome standing losing streaks against the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Islanders. The Penguins were poised and patient against Carolina in a 2-1 shootout win, marking their first win over Carolina since the 2021-22 NHL season.
The Penguins laid waste to the Islanders Wednesday night and filled the net with a six-goal second period. Kris Letang set multiple records, including being the first defenseman to have five assists in one period, and tied the NHL record for most assists by a defenseman in a single game.
Statistically, the Penguins might be even with the Eastern Conference wild cards. They trail Carolina by four points but have two games in hand.
They also trail the third-place Philadelphia Flyers by four points without games in hand.
With 49 games remaining, which team would you bet on to win more, the Flyers or the Penguins?
And that’s the reason, for the first time since early October, there can be the faintest whiff of optimism. The Penguins have forced themselves back into the race. No, they have not played well recently.
The Penguins stole a point with a torrid third period against Ottawa on Dec. 23. Letang referenced that OT loss and fortunate point Wednesday night.
“You know, we lost the last game going into the break after coming back into the game,” said Letang. “So it’s always a tough, tough loss. But when you come back, and you’re able to win a game against a division rival like this and somebody you’re chasing, it’s huge.”
By the grace of Sidney Crosby, they beat the Montreal Canadiens on Dec. 13, despite most of the team submitting a performance not worthy of a dog’s breakfast. And, of course, no recounting of the Penguins’ journey would be complete without the utter embarrassment in Toronto on Dec. 16.
As of Wednesday, the Penguins flipped that 7-0 loss to Toronto into a 7-0 win over New York. Just like the Penguins did against Toronto, the Islanders called themselves to task.
“Unacceptable” and “brutal” were the words the Islanders’ locker room spat out, according to our NYI Hockey Now colleague Andrew Fantucchio.
Now it’s all square. The Penguins have balanced the universe. They’ve won a few games through December in which they didn’t play well, balancing a few in November when they didn’t win despite outplaying their opponent.
Rickard Rakell is scoring again.
Valtteri Puustinen is providing a fun-size punch in the middle of the lineup. And if history is any indication, Evgeni Malkin’s two goals on Wednesday won’t be temporary reclamation but convalescence of his game.
According to MoneyPuck.com, the Penguins now have a 50.8% chance to make the playoffs.
For a team with at least four future Hall of Famers, a 50% shot at the playoffs might seem paltry, but compare that to the dismal outlook that more closely resembled Pittsburgh weather after the wretched OT loss to Ottawa. That defeat was too close to the tumbles up north in the week prior.
Sure, the Penguins power play was 0-for-3 on Wednesday and has quickly reverted into the hockey equivalent of a blank stare, but there are more reasons for optimism than not.
The Penguins goaltending is the envy of most of the league. Tristan Jarry has a .916 save percentage and four shutouts. Alex Nedeljkovic has a .917 save percentage and one shutout. Jarry also shares a shutout with Magnus Hellberg (LA Kings).
Sidney Crosby is playing at a Hart Trophy level. He and Jake Guentzel have more than a point-per-game average. Crosby has 35 points in 33 games. Guentzel has 39. Almost inexplicably, Crosby didn’t register a point in the Penguins 7-0 win Wednesday.
The 23-year-old Puustinen has a unique youthful spark that hasn’t been seen in these parts since 2016 and 2017.
Erik Karlsson is a Norris Trophy winner, and it seems he and his team are figuring out how they mesh.
Oh, Letang and Malkin, too.
There’s no question the Penguins played with fire with gasoline on their hands. Had they lost to Carolina and the Islanders in regulation, they could be nearly 10 points out. That would be insurmountable and an ignominious end.
The Penguins have earned nothing but a chance. But given the abyss they were staring into just a week ago, a chance is the best possible result.