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Make or Break: 3 Games Could Determine Penguins’ Fate



Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby

It has not gone well for the Pittsburgh Penguins against the Carolina Hurricanes over the last season-plus. The Penguins have lost the last five games (0-3-2), and each one has been a particularly heartbreaking, frustrating, angering, or infuriating one-goal loss.

Last December, Bryan Rust sat in his locker stall, angrily stewing after the Penguins blew a third-period lead in the first of back-to-back losses to Carolina within a week. He vowed the next game would be different.

It was not.

The Penguins were charging toward the top of the Eastern Conference until those two losses. The team spiraled, losing five more in a row and eight of 10. The Ls began to outnumber the Ws.

There’s no official way to determine if those losses were the cause, but they sure seemed to pop the Penguins’ balloon, leading to the first playoff miss in 16 years.

The Penguins have two advantages they perhaps did not last season: Goaltending, and believe it or not, a power-play hot streak.

“Our power play. Special teams have (made a big difference). I feel like those one-goal games, five-on-five, those one-goal games have been pretty even,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “So, try to win that special teams battle and see if that makes a difference.”

Carolina has been struggling, with just four wins in their last 10 and a couple of closed-door meetings. Last week, the team waived goalie Antti Raanta, opting to go with Pyotr Kochetkov as their No. 1 and Yaniv Perets, a rookie who was called up from the ECHL.

Freddie Andersen remains on the injured list. Kochetkov has an .895 save percentage in 16 games played.

If there’s a time to beat Carolina and end the winless streak, it is NOW.

Penguins Playoff Situation

In his press conference two weeks ago, Dubas clarified comments that the Florida trip would determine the direction of the team. He pushed the timeline for final judgments to the All-Star break, and it’s a good thing he did because the Penguins lost both games in regulation.

However, Dubas may not have to wait until the All-Star break. He might know before the new year.

The situation in which the Penguins find themselves is neither advantageous nor pleasant. The Penguins trail the Hurricanes by six points for the top wild-card spot but have two games in hand. The Penguins trail the Washington Capitals by five points for the second wild-card spot, and Washington has one game in hand.

There remain four teams between the Penguins and Washington, too. In terms of winning percentage, the Penguins are about where they should be–13th in the Eastern Conference (The Penguins have the 12th best winning percentage, .01 ahead of the Montreal Canadiens).

If they lose to Carolina (again) on Thursday at PPG Paints Arena, things will go sideways in a hurry. They would trail Carolina by eight points, and Washington would lead by five with a game pending against the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday.

Lose, and the Penguins could wake up Friday eight and seven points back of a playoff spot.

Six points is generally the outer limit of contention.

Carolina Scheme / How Penguins Can Win

Wednesday, Coach Mike Sullivan conceded Carolina’s scheme is unique across the NHL. It’s a man-to-man system, and the defensemen are mobile but defense first. The team is built to play it with a pretty good coach, Rod Brind’Amour.

However, don’t expect to see the Penguins take additional risks to beat Carolina–at least not if the coach has his way.

“Some of them have been closer than others, depending on how you look at it … I think we’ve just got to find a way to make sure that we’re every bit as hard to play against as they’re trying to be on us,” Sullivan said. “And then I think we’ve got to take what the game gives us. When you play a team like Carolina, that’s a pretty stingy defensive team, the element of patience associated with your puck possession and the offense that you’re trying to create is really important because if you are trying to force plays that aren’t there — because maybe you go a handful of shifts and you don’t get anything — that’s when you leave yourself vulnerable to a counterattack opportunity.

“So I think patience and discipline of patience are really important aspects of having success against a team like Carolina.”

Penguins Big Three

The winless streak against Carolina isn’t the only streak the Penguins must break over the next week. They were 0-3-1 against the New York Islanders last season, too.

The next three games could well seal the Penguins’ fate. If they win two of three, especially one against Carolina, they’re probably back in the thick of the overcrowded fight for the wild card.

vs. Carolina.
at Ottawa (Saturday)
at New York Islanders Dec. 27.

If they lose two of three, especially to Carolina and New York, the Penguins will have a steep, if not a highly unlikely, mathematical hill to climb back to playoff contention.

And a lot of soul-searching.

The Islanders beat the Penguins in all four games last season, three in regulation, coming back from multi-goal third-period deficits. Against the top four teams in the Metro Division, the Penguins are 0-3-2 this season.

The Eastern Conference playoff race began in Game 1 this season. A lot of teams and too few spots. Buffalo and Ottawa were unable to build on last season’s momentum. Still, the Philadelphia Flyers (who beat the Penguins twice, once in overtime and once in a shootout) and Washington have taken their place. Even the supposedly rebuilding Montreal Canadiens have been a tough game, as evidenced by their standing one point ahead of the Penguins.

There’s not supposed to be a “must win” in December, but the Penguins vs. Carolina on Thursday at PPG Paints Arena must just be as close as possible.