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Molinari: Penguins Are Still in a Tight Race. Just Not That One

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Sam Poulin, WBS Penguins, Pittsburgh Penguins

Hockey people tend to react to difficult situations in ways that make the Black Knight of Monty Python fame look like an inveterate wuss.

You know, the guy who, upon having his left arm lopped off in a sword fight with King Arthur, insisted that ” ‘Tis but a scratch,'” and assessed that “It’s just a flesh wound” after having his other one removed shortly thereafter.

While the Penguins, happily, have not lost any limbs this season, their professional predicament is nearly as perilous as that of the Black Knight. whose options for wielding his sword against King Arthur had been reduced to holding its hilt between his teeth or with his toes.

They haven’t officially been eliminated from contention for a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but that’s a mathematical inevitability that they’re not going to evade.

Penguins players, coaches and staffers aren’t likely to accept that reality — not publicly, anyway — because that’s simply not the mindset that prevails in this game.

Lose seven away games in a row and go 3-9-1 in their past 13 overall, at a time when they’re supposed to be making a serious push to qualify for postseason play?

‘Tis but a scratch.

Precisely when the Penguins’ playoff prospects¬†will be formally snuffed is impossible to predict, because that will be determined in part, by how the teams — oh, so many teams — above them in the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference standings fare, and a lot of those have been nothing more than mediocre in recent weeks.

Unfortunately for the Penguins, as their record during the past month suggests, mediocrity is something to which they rarely have been able to aspire. If they linger in suspended animation for much longer, it surely will be because teams they’ve been chasing sputter and stumble, not because the Penguins go on a tear and pile up six or eight consecutive victories.

Which, by the way, would not be sufficient to put them in a playoff spot.

It’s only a flesh wound.

The Penguins have 13 games remaining, with a visit to Colorado Sunday next on their itinerary, and are nine points behind Detroit, which sits in the final Eastern playoff spot going into Saturday’s games.

So, you’re saying there’s a chance?

Not even close.

This playoff race is over for the Penguins. Has been for longer than any of them would care to acknowledge.

Forget gold, silver or bronze; all that’s left to determine is whether they’ll finish with the cardboard medal or the aluminum foil one.

They are, however, immersed in a competition that might be the best reason to pay attention to them between now and April 17, when their regular season reaches its merciful conclusion.

The Penguins are, you see, tied with Seattle for the eighth-fewest points in the league, which means that president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas’ decision last summer to add top-10 protection to the first-round draft choice he sent to San Jose in the Erik Karlsson trade might have been his best move of the offseason.

It seemed unduly cautious at the time, since the Penguins viewed themselves as legitimate contenders for the Stanley Cup. Now, there’s a very real chance that their first-round pick will be one of the few good things to come out of this season.

If the Penguins finish in the bottom 10 over the overall standings, Dubas has the option of holding on to that No. 1 and giving the Sharks his team’s first-rounder in 2025 instead.

That almost certainly is what he would do, since keeping next year’s No. 1 would send a not-so-subtle message to people inside and outside the organization that he expects the Penguins to be even worse in 2024-25 than they have been this season.

That would really boost morale among players and staff and spur season-ticket sales, don’t you think?

The Penguins have put off facing their future for years. Adding a quality prospect who could be a significant contributor in a few seasons might be another nudge toward preparing for it, even if that was not the plan last fall.

Which would be a step toward healing the flesh wound that was their 2023-24 season.