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Six Reasons Penguins Might Miss Stanley Cup Playoffs



Pittsburgh Penguins game analysis, Evgeni Malkin, Reilly Smith

The Pittsburgh Penguins have left a lot of points on the table this season.

That doesn’t include the ones they’ve left on the floor, the credenza and in the cushions of the loveseat.

They have 36 games remaining to close the gap separating them from the Eastern Conference playoff field and avoid sitting out the postseason for the second spring in a row.

Here are six reasons the Penguins might not be able to do it:

1. The power play (of course)

How a unit with so much talent could generate so few goals is one of the great mysteries of this season.

The Penguins exit the all-star break with the 31st-ranked power play in the 32-team league, converting a near-microscopic 13.1 percent of its opportunities.

If the Penguins’ production with the man-advantage had managed to be so much as average — which would have been a profound disappointment going into the season — they would be looking down at much of the conference, instead of straining to maintain visual contact with the teams sitting in playoff spots.

Of course, at any moment, the power play could corral the rhythm that has eluded it for most of the season, and go on a tear that would turbo-charge a Penguins surge through the standings. To this point, though, it has done little to suggest that is likely.

2. Second-line sputters

Although Evgeni Malkin and Reilly Smith formed a productive partnership in the early weeks of the season, their effectiveness waned and the line has been inconsistent, at best, for most of the past few months.

Smith and Rickard Rakell, who got extensive work on the right side of that unit, have gone through extended scoring droughts, and Malkin’s game has been up and down.

With Smith injured and Rakell slumping, Drew O’Connor and Colin White were moved onto Malkin’s wings, but both are best-suited for bottom-six roles. (Smith was back in his usual spot with Malkin during practice Sunday.)

The Penguins need to have top-six talents like Rakell and Smith perform to their potential, and help lift the line to the level it should be at.

3. Staying busy

The Penguins have played 46 games, which is fewer than any NHL team except Edmonton (45). The good news for them is that that means they have at least one game-in-hand on every team they’re trying to catch in the Eastern playoff race.

That catch is that the Pittsburgh Penguins are the oldest team in the league, and will be playing more often than any team except the Oilers the rest of the way.

So far, they actually seem to have thrived in situations when their energy levels should have been depleted — the Penguins are an improbable 6-0 in the second game when playing on consecutive days — but the grind of playing 16 games in the first 30 days of March and nine in 17 days in April could exact a toll that gets reflected in the standings.

4. Home-ice disadvantage

The Penguins are 22-17-7 and have a winning record in away games (10-9-4). Trouble is, they are just 12-8-3 at PPG Paints Arena, which means they have fewer home victories than 17 clubs and the same number as three others.

While being able to win on the road is critical if a team hopes to make a serious run at a championship, winning a healthy percentage of its home games generally is necessary if it hopes to qualify for the playoffs in the first place.

5. Deficits on defense

The Penguins traded for Erik Karlsson because they felt he could invigorate their offense (especially the power play) and signed Ryan Graves as a free agent to add a solid defensive presence to one of their top two pairings.

Neither has consistently performed to expectations yet.

Karlsson has lost his spot on the No. 1 power play and Graves did some time on the No. 3 pairing because he had been ineffective alongside Kris Letang or Karlsson.

Both newcomers are capable of better than they have shown, and the Penguins need to have them prove it down the stretch.

6. Bottom-six scoring

Members of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ third and fourth lines for their final game before the break — that would be Lars Eller, Valtteri Puustinen, Noel Acciari, Jansen Harkins, Jeff Carter and Rakell — have generated just 23 goals in 210 man-games, including a combined total of one in 52 games for Puustinen and Harkins.

Eller has accounted for nine of the group’s total and Carter has rebounded after a miserable start to score five, and there’s no question the bottom two lines are counted on more to prevent goals than produce them, but they’re going to have to find a way to show up on the scoresheet a little more often. Newly signed Jesse Puljujarvi will be counted on to do that.

The counterpoint: Six reasons to believe Penguins can make playoffs