CRANBERRY — The Pittsburgh Penguins will close out the first half of their 2023-24 schedule with a game against Carolina at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Saturday night.
Odds are that, regardless of how they fare against the Hurricanes, the Penguins will be sitting outside the Eastern Conference playoff field when that game is over.
And even if things would break just right for them and they would return home with a hold on the second wild-card berth in the East, it would only be because of they’d have an edge in a tiebreaker, not a clear advantage in points.
Considering that they entered the regular season intent on challenging for a Stanley Cup, the Penguins understandably are not content with how things have played out so far.
More importantly, they profess to grasp that they’re likely to sit out the postseason for the second consecutive year if they fail to consistently — and that is the key term here — elevate their game during the second half of the season.
“We’ve had moments where we’ve looked like the team we intended — and hoped — to become,” coach Mike Sullivan said after practice Friday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. “Others where we haven’t. I don’t think anybody’s satisfied with where we’re at. We have aspirations to make the playoffs, and challenge for a Stanley Cup, and we’re not there yet.”
They really aren’t, by most objective measures, all that close to contending for a championship.
Their power play has underachieved for most of the season. Their 10-8-2 record on home ice is, to be charitable, ordinary. Key offensive contributors like Rickard Rakell and Erik Karlsson have gone for weeks at a time without scoring a goal. Getting sluggish starts and struggling to protect leads has become routine.
It’s not that the Pittsburgh Penguins have been incapable of playing well; they have, after all, won 20 games and squeezed 45 points out of their first 40 games. But the reality that they’ve won more than two games in a row only twice reflects the up-and-down nature of their performance to date.
“We’ve been inconsistent at times,” right winger Bryan Rust said. “There have been stretches in games and there have been games where we … play really good hockey. Not everyone is going to bring their best every time — you can’t bring your ‘A game’ every night — but when things aren’t really going our way, they go really not our way. Our ability to be as consistent as possible, but also to recover a little bit more quickly when things start to go awry, is going to help us be successful in the second half of the year.”
The Penguins have alternated victories and losses, including a 4-3 overtime defeat by Vancouver Thursday, in their past six games, but are 9-3-2 since Dec. 12.
That, Rust suggested, is evidence that the Penguins are beginning to inject some consistency into their game.
“We’ve seen a whole lot more of that recently,” he said. “We’ve been playing the right way. I think guys are starting to get on the same page with each other and doing what it takes to win games, not letting (bad) things snowball.”
One thing of which Rust seems certain is that the Penguins are a bona fide playoff club.
“We’ve got a really good team here,” he said. “We’ve got a confident team in here. Recently, we’ve shown we can be a really good team. We can go through a little bit of adversity and find ways to get points. Our ability to continue to do that as the year goes on will probably be important. It’s going to be tight, down to the wire.”
Which is why it figures to be imperative that the Penguins limit their lapses and letdowns during what remains of the season.
“There’s a lot of room for growth with out team,” Sullivan said. “I think we’ve played a lot of good hockey. In some instances, I feel like we’ve played better than what our record indicates. But we are what we are.”
And if they don’t regularly perform at a higher level during what remains of the 2023-24 regular season, what the Pittsburgh Penguins likely will be is a team that sits out the Stanley Cup playoffs for the second consecutive spring.