The Pittsburgh Penguins playoff hopes recently seemed secure. They were in the top three of the Metro Division and had a comfortable lead on the pack of middling teams which trailed the wild-card by six points or more. But the last 10 games have not been kind to the Penguins while the Carolina Hurricanes have surged.
The Penguins now cling to the final Eastern Conference wild-card position by a single point. They lead Carolina by six points on Monday but Carolina shutout the Penguins 4-0 on Tuesday. Then Carolina escaped with an overtime win in Buffalo on Thursday, and shutout the New York Rangers on Friday.
Friday night, Carolina goalie Petr Mrazek stopped 27 shots in the 3-0 shutout win over New York. Warren Foegele scored the game-winner early in the third period. Mrazek is platooning with journeyman goaltender Curtis McElhinney, who blanked the Penguins on Tuesday but yielded five goals on 34 shots on Thursday in Buffalo.
Carolina is 13-4-1 in its past 18 games. The Penguins are just 3-6-1 in their last 10.
“I think we know where we are in the standings and how important each game is,” Foegele told reporters. “We need wins and it’s important we got two points there.”
Carolina has seemingly put the Michael Ferland trade rumors and distractions behind them. It has been a couple weeks since the last reports or blazing headlines of serious talks surrounding Ferland, as Carolina has apparently held to their very high asking price of at least a first-round pick.
Carolina also has a much easier schedule over the next few games, too. They visit the Metro Division last-place New Jersey Devils today, Atlantic Division cellar-dwelling Ottawa Senators on Tuesday, and host the mightily struggling Edmonton Oilers on Thursday. Only three Carolina’s next 11 games are against opponents in a playoff position, and two of those are against the Dallas Stars. The other is the St. Louis Blues.
As Carolina surges, the Penguins are dealing with injuries, line shuffling, and poor efforts. The Penguins have also lost three in a row, but did manage a point for the overtime loss to Florida.
Carolina has become the social media darlings of the NHL with victory celebrations which have ranged from the funny to silly, including an on-ice game of duck-duck-goose. And this gem:
Carolina is also a gritty team which efforts to win games. So wrote Sara Civian for The Athletic yesterday.
The Penguins have not missed the playoffs since 2005-06, which was Sidney Crosby’s rookie year and Mario Lemieux’s final season. The Penguins had the worst record in the Eastern Conference and drafted Jordan Staal with the second overall pick.