“We have to put in our brain until the end of the year it’s going to be a tough fight to make the playoffs,” — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang after the Penguins flatline 7-3 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights, Saturday.
And it will be a fierce battle. Despite winning 13 of 16, including eight in a row earlier this month, two straight losses fell the Penguins to the second wild-card position four points ahead of ninth-place Buffalo but just four points back from the division lead.
Can the Penguins who technically have won two of the last three Stanley Cups, mentally wrap their head around playing with urgency in the regular season? Can they eschew the selfish feel-good plays which feed the other team more than themselves? Can the Penguins put it in their brain, the regular season matters?
Most importantly, will they embrace their new identity?
They must. Penguins fans are allowed to dismiss or ignore the competition but the Penguins cannot.
The New York Islanders–without John Tavares–are in first place in the Metropolitan Division by three points. They have won five in a row and 15 of 18. Goaltender Robin Lehner who was long thought to be a franchise goalie but was derailed by personal struggles appears to be reaching his full potential.
The Washington Capitals have led the division for most of the season. Alex Ovechkin has 33 goals already. However, Washington has lost five straight. They held an airing-of-grievances team meeting Monday to snap out of their funk. They have fallen to third place and it apparently isn’t sitting well.
The Columbus Blue Jackets. For all of the drama surrounding a pair of Russians–Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin–who don’t like High Steet or perhaps John Tortorella, are also ahead of the Penguins in the Metro Division. Columbus surpassed Washington and is in second place, even with a handful of recent starts by backup Joonas Korpisalo.
Korpisalo, 24, appears to be taking the starting job from Bobrovsky. Korpisalo has won three of his last four games and allowed only eight goals in those four games. Oh by the way, about 10 days ago, Bobrovsky was essentially suspended for one day because of an internal issue. That “suspension” resulted in the recent run by Korpisalo.
And those are just the playoff teams. The Philadelphia Flyers internal upheaval has thunderous scoring winger Wayne Simmonds on the trade market and the New York Rangers essentially have everyone on the trade market. Plus Carolina is the hockey world social media darling for partying on the ice after wins.
The crazy Metro Division, right?
The closest team chasing the Penguins for the second wild-card spot are the Buffalo Sabres, who were 17-6-2 in the first 25 games before a mid-season swoon. They have every ability to turn it on again and chase the Penguins, especially if the Penguins stumble.
And so the Penguins cannot be arrogant. They cannot feed their ego at the expense of simple, sometimes ugly hockey which is their true identity.
“We’ve got to find a way to be a team that has a clear identity of what it is and how we’re going to play,” warned head coach Mike Sullivan. “To a man, everyone has to buy into it.”
The Penguins will likely make the playoffs if it comes down to a head-to-head battle with Buffalo but that just isn’t good enough. A team constructed to win now, to make that one last glorious run is still taking three steps forward, then two steps back.
The crazy Metropolitan Division is a godsend for journalists and fans. The heightened drama will carry through the remainder of the season — the Cinderella Islanders, the defending champion Capitals and the mighty Penguins will fill papers and websites (*ahem).
It’s time the Penguins put it into their brain; put their identity and their mission to the forefront. From here, statistics won’t matter if they’re watching the playoffs on TV, feeling like there is something they should be doing. A failure to finish strong and make a forceful challenge for the Stanley Cup will be the end of this group.
But a galloping finish even if it doesn’t end in silver will buy them something almost as valuable: one more chance.
If they embrace their identity.