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Penguins Six-Pack: No Time to Fret; Trying to Defy History



Marcus Pettersson Alex Nedeljkovic

The Pittsburgh Penguins don’t have the luxury of dwelling on what happened to them Saturday at PPG Paints Arena.

Or what went down anywhere else in the NHL, for that matter.

Mostly because just about all of it was bad — very bad — for their chances of returning to the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring, and they have very little time to try to make it right.

Not only did the Penguins lose to Boston, 6-4, but the three teams that had been hovering behind them in the fight for the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference — Washington, Detroit and Philadelphia — won their games and moved a point ahead of the Penguins.

What’s more, the New York Islanders, who the Penguins have been hoping to overtake for third place in the Metropolitan Division, picked up a point by taking the New York Rangers to overtime before losing, 3-2. In the process, they bumped their lead over the Penguins up to four points.

Losing to the Bruins eliminated any margin for error the Penguins might have had (and them some), which is why they have to get past that game quickly and focus on the two they have left.

“The important thing that we have to be aware of, and be focused on, is the game right in front of us,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “Because that’s the only thing that we can control.”

The Penguins believe their best chance to improve their situation will be to return to the formula that allowed them to go on a 7-0-3 roll before facing Boston.

“We just have to get back to what was working for us the past few games,” said winger Michael Bunting, who scored the Penguins’ second goal and initially was credited with their fourth. “Just working hard, making it hard on them. We were a little lenient on that (against Boston). … We have to look forward to the next game. We’re still in this thing.”

1. History lesson

If they win their final two games, the Pittsburgh Penguins will finish the season with 90 points.

With Washington, Detroit and Philadelphia sitting a point above them in the battle for the second wild-card berth in the Eastern Conference, it’s far from certain that 90 would be enough to get them into the postseason.

Indeed, history says there’s very little chance of that happening.

Since wild cards were introduced in 2013-14, only two teams have gotten into the playoffs with 90 or fewer points during non-Covid seasons.

Colorado did it with 90 in 2018-19 and Minnesota made it with 87 in 2015-16. Both qualified as second wild cards.

2. O’Connor’s OK

Drew O’Connor’s development has been one of the most positive developments for the Penguins in 2023-24, and he underscored the progress he’s made by scoring an outstanding shorthanded goal in the third period Saturday.

O’Connor, who was near the Pittsburgh Penguins’ blue line, took a pass from Lars Eller, who was along the left-wing boards.

O’Connor charged through the neutral zone, put the puck around Bruins winger Brad Marchand as he neared the Boston blue line, then collected it in the Bruins’ end before beating goalie Linus Ullmark from the right hash to slice the Penguins’ deficit to 4-3.

“Incredible goal,” Sullivan said. “I thought (O’Connor) had a real inspiring effort tonight. I thought he played really hard. That goal was an example of it. .. You see his strength, his skating ability and his scoring touch. It was a terrific goal.”

3. Defending the defender

When Penguins goalie Alex Nedeljkovic was asked Wednesday whether the physical and mental demands of starting so many high-stakes games in a row — his streak had reached nine at that point — could begin to affect his play, he was adamant that fatigue of any sort was a non-issue.

He reiterated that belief after the game Saturday.

There’s no reason to doubt that he genuinely felt that way, because Nedeljkovic has been straightforward with reporters since he joined the Pittsburgh Penguins last summer.

Nonetheless, it does appear that the grind finally is getting to Nedeljkovic, as he allowed five goals on 30 shots in a 6-5 overtime victory against Detroit Thursday and three goals on 16 shots to the Bruins before being pulled Saturday.

That’s not to suggest that Nedeljkovic is the only reason the Penguins barely got past the Red Wings and/or got in a deep hole against the Bruins, but he wasn’t as sharp in those games as he had been earlier in his streak.

It’s understandable that Sullivan opted to stick with Nedeljkovic against Detroit and Boston, because there was no guarantee Tristan Jarry would be near the top of his game after an extended layoff, but there also was a risk in sticking with him.

Although two of the goals Nedeljkovic allowed Saturday seemed preventable — he gave up a big rebound on Pavel Zacha’s, then was beaten from fairly long range by Kevin Shattenkirk — Sullivan said he put Jarry in the game primarily to “change momentum for our group” and volunteered that “(Nedeljkovic) has given us some great hockey” in recent weeks.

4. Peeved at Pastrnak

Bruins winger David Pastrnak finished the night with two assists, and easily could have had a couple of goals to go with them.

He backhanded a rebound off the right post with less than three minutes to go in the first period, then drove a slap shot past Nedeljkovic 3 1/2 minutes into the second, only to have it also slam into that post.

Pastrnak recorded the last of his four shots on goal in the waning seconds of regulation, when he broke in alone on Jarry and hammered a slap shot toward the net from close range.

Jarry stopped the puck, and Crosby made a point of letting Pastrnak know the Penguins weren’t happy with his shot selection at the end of a game whose outcome had been decided, although he downplayed the incident after the game.

“It’s probably a tough position for (Pastrnak) to be in,” Crosby said. “It doesn’t happen that often, that you want to go down and do a deke or … He took a slap shot. I didn’t really see where it hit (Jarry). He can do whatever he wants, obviously. There’s still time on the clock. But … there wasn’t much to it.”

5. Short shrift

The Penguins manufactured a power-play goal for just the second time in eight games, but only after they had allowed Brad Marchand to score a goal while the Bruins were killing that penalty.

It was the 12th shorthanded goal the Penguins have allowed this season, tying Montreal for the most in the NHL.

The combination of the Penguins’ failure to take advantage when the other team is down a man — they have scored on just 14.5 percent of their power plays, the second-lowest figure in the league — and their penchant for giving up goals in that situation is one of the reasons they’re in danger of again sitting out the playoffs.

“It’s happened a million different ways,” Sullivan said. “But at the end of the day, it boils down to just diligence and being committed to defend.”

6. The road ahead

The Pittsburgh Penguins will close out the regular season with two winnable, though hardly easy, games.

They will face Nashville Monday evening at PPG Paints Arena, then visit the Islanders Wednesday.

Here are the schedules of the other teams with which they are competing for a playoff berth:

New York Islanders — Monday, at New Jersey; Wednesday, Penguins.

Washington — Monday, Boston; Tuesday, at Philadelphia.

Detroit — Monday, Montreal; Tuesday, at Montreal.

Philadelphia — Tuesday, Washington.

Because the Capitals will play the Flyers, one of those teams is assured of finishing with at least 89 points. That means the Penguins will have to secure at least three of the four points still available to them to trigger the tiebreaker that would give them the edge on the club with 89.