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Is Knockout Punch for Penguins’ Playoff Hopes Looming?



Pittsburgh Penguins, NHL trade talk, Dallas Stars owner rips Tyler Seguin

CRANBERRY — The Pittsburgh Penguins still have a chance to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

And Duquesne, fresh off its opening-round victory over BYU, has a chance not only to win the NCAA basketball championship, but to do it without giving up more than 30 points in any of its remaining games.

Is it highly improbable for the Dukes to do that? No doubt. But if forced to choose between those two, betting on Duquesne to pull it off might be the wiser play.

That’s because Penguins are, at the moment, seven points behind Detroit, which holds the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, and nine in back of Philadelphia, which is third in the Metropolitan Division.

And while they have at least one game-in-hand on most of the teams they are chasing, the Penguins have done precious little to suggest that their season is on anything beyond mathematical life support.

That includes losing their past six away games, five of them in regulation. They haven’t won a game on the road since a 4-3 overtime victory in Vancouver Feb. 27.

Such a sour streak away from PPG Paints Arena has to be deflating, especially when the Penguins are about to embark on a two-game road trip.

But it gets worse.

Potentially, a lot worse.

For it’s not just that the Penguins are leaving town, but where they are headed.

Their first stop is in Dallas, where the Stars, who have won four of their past five games against the Penguins, are 21-10-4 at the American Airlines Center.

Dallas is 42-19-9 and in a three-way tie for first place in the Central Division going into Thursday night’s games.

Unfortunately for the Penguins, one of the teams with which Dallas shares the top spot is Colorado, which is their second opponent on this trip and which is widely regarded as a serious contender for the Stanley Cup this spring.

The Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Avalanche, 4-0, at PPG Paints Arena Oct. 26 and actually are 4-1-1 in their past six games at Ball Arena (previously known as Pepsi Center), but Colorado is 26-6 at home this season and the Penguins have gone nearly a month without a victory on the road.

And regardless of how they fare against the Stars and Avalanche, the Penguins won’t be able to exhale when they return, because their first game back will be against Carolina. The Hurricanes are challenging for first place in the Metro and the East and recently bolstered an already-strong lineup by acquiring a rather accomplished left winger named Jake Guentzel. (Perhaps you’ve heard of him.)

“They’re all going to be tough,” right winger Bryan Rust said after practice Thursday. “You look at the teams who are at the top, the teams we’re going to be playing here in the next week or so, they’re teams that have really good records who have been good all year. Those teams are where they are for a reason.”

Just as there are reasons the Penguins are sitting behind every Metro team except Columbus.

One is that they are just 12-15-5 on the road, where they’ve been outscored, 24-8, during their current 0-5-1 skid outside of the 412 area code.

“We’ve had some trouble scoring goals,” said winger Rickard Rakell who, coincidentally enough, does not have a goal on the road since Jan. 8 at Philadelphia. “The reason for that? I don’t know.”

While multiple factors have contributed to the Penguins’ struggles in away games, defenseman Marcus Pettersson said that poor starts — the one they had in a 5-2 loss at New Jersey Tuesday, for example — have been a recurring issue.

“We’ve let teams get the crowd involved a little bit,” he said. “Teams have come out and gained territory on us. They’ve had an effective forecheck against us at the start, and throughout the whole game.”

That’s why quicker, more efficient breakouts got a lot of attention when the Penguins convened before flying to Texas.

Still, improved attention to detail and more effective execution almost certainly will not be enough to save the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2023-24.

Their points deficit simply is too great, the number of teams separating them from a playoff berth too many and their games remaining too few for them to find a realistic path to the postseason.

And if they refuse to abandon any hope of qualifying, it’s only because they have performed to their potential just often enough to show what’s possible when they manage to do that.

“We’ve shown early in the year that if we play the right way and really put a 60-minute effort together, we can beat any team,” Pettersson said, citing the shutout victory over the Avalanche a few weeks into the season. “We know that we have the capability in this room.”

They also have to know that they’ve all but run out of time to prove it.