The gravity of the Pittsburgh Penguins tenuous situation is not lost on center Evgeni Malkin who has been absent from the lineup since March 16 with an upper-body injury. The Penguins have yet to clinch a playoff spot despite a 10-3-3- run through March and ascending to third place in the Metro Division. It could still go south for the Penguins who waited until the final game of the season to clinch a playoff berth in 2015, too.
The Penguins whiffed on their first chance to clinch a ticket to postseason ball Tuesday with a lackluster performance against the Detroit Red Wings. The Penguins fired 39 shots but more were singular pushes to the net than coordinated and sustained attacks from the prime scoring zones.
And thus they have to try again against Detroit tonight at PPG Paints Arena.
“Win (tonight) and it feels so much better. We’d again be in the playoffs,” said Evgeni Malkin. “There’s a couple more games for us. We understand they’re huge games for us and we need to win both.”
The Penguins can’t help but peek at the three teams chasing them. Montreal, Columbus, and Carolina are battling for just two playoff spots. Just one point separates those three teams. Columbus and Montreal who are only three points behind the Penguins and Carolina trails by only a pair.
“We’ll see how Montreal or Columbus plays. It’s our job (to win). We’re playing at home and we need to focus on only what is going on with our group,” Malkin said. “It’s not pressure to me. It’s not pressure to the team. We understand there are two more games and we have to win both.”
Malkin has been on a figurative roller coaster this season with inconsistent play, piles of points and admitted gobs of frustration. Despite more than a point per game, Malkin has admitted this season has been frustrating. The 6-foot-3 pillar of the Penguins culture and team has 71 points (21g, 50a) in 66 games.
The lack of an X beside the Penguins name in the standings which denotes a clinched playoff spot doesn’t sound like Malkin is taking the playoffs for granted. Though nor is the lack of a berth worrying.
“It’s what do we do here every day. We come to be stronger, be better. We have a great organization and great guys in here,” Malkin said. “We lost (Tuesday) 4-1. We’re not happy with that but today is a new day. We come to practice, support each other.”
The Penguins have struggled to score goals without Malkin and Kris Letang in the lineup. The Penguins have scored three or more goals just twice in the six games they’ve both been out since March 16. The Penguins have 12 goals in those six games.
Yesterday, Malkin skated without the non-contact jersey for the first time since his injury on March 16, which he thought was the result of a dirty play by St. Louis Blues defenseman Robert Bortuzzo. Malkin returned to practice last Saturday and was optimistic about playing in the final two games of the regular season.
Malkin couldn’t help but put the Penguins immediate challenge in the context of the larger goal. The Penguins core has hoisted the Stanley Cup three times in their career and twice in the past three years.
“Of course, we want to win again. It’s so much more fun,” Malkin concluded.
And to get that chance, they must win at least one of the next two games. To get a favorable matchup and avoid the mighty Tampa Bay Lightning or even arch-rival Washington in the first round, two wins would do the trick regardless of what Montreal or Columbus do.