The Pittsburgh Penguins are two games away from hitting the 20% mark of the NHL season. Traditionally, U.S. Thanksgiving is a time for turkey and NHL GMs to take stock of their teams. The offseason additions should be adjusting into the lineup, newbies should have their legs, and a divisional pecking order should emerge.
The Penguins really can’t say their team has been on the ice. Sidney Crosby has played two games, separated by 11 days after offseason wrist surgery.
Evgeni Malkin is skating in the morning with skills coach Ty Hennes and is probably a month or so away from returning to the team.
COVID has strategically picked away at the Penguins lineup, including head coach Mike Sullivan.
Yet, this time the Pittsburgh Penguins did not rally around themselves. More than a few lackluster efforts have lowlighted the Penguins 2-4-2 stretch. Not even the wins have been energetic affairs.
While no one has seen the actual Pittsburgh Penguins, the lack of secondary help when that same help has existed for several years must be a concern.
Before we spend time chiding players and looking around on the NHL trade market for fillers which could improve some of the sagging parts of the Penguins lineup, it’s a good moment to look at the teams ahead of the Penguins, too.
The Eastern Conference wild-card spots are currently held by unexpected upstarts Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils. The Buffalo Sabres and Columbus Blue Jackets are also ahead of the Penguins.
Removing the Penguins from the equation, none of those teams are expected to be serious challengers at the finish line. However, several genuine playoff teams are ahead of the Penguins.
Momentum cuts both ways. It can lift a bad team to good results, and it can crush a good team. The Philadelphia Flyers are a prime example. After a resurgence in 2020, the team went off the rails in 2020-21 and never broke free. The Flyers missed the playoffs, and GM Chuck Fletcher swung from the heels during the offseason.
The Flyers are the lowest team, closest to the bottom-dwelling Penguins. In the offseason, the Flyers added toughness and a breath of fresh air. They acquired rock-em, sock-em defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen over the screams of the Twitter analytics crowd.
The Flyers also parted with the increasingly light-scoring Jakub Voracek for gritty Cam Atkinson. And they added some intensity with Derick Brassard on a bargain deal.
The results have been better than last season, and the team is 7-4-2, despite missing second-line center Kevin Hayes for most of the young season.
As the Flyers jell and Carter Hart smooths his inconsistency, Philadelphia is two points ahead of the Penguins with one game in hand.
They’re going to get better.
Ahead of Philadelphia, but still out of the playoff position are the Boston Bruins. With the “perfection line” still around, the Bruins will always be a good team. David Pastrnak is in a bit of a slump at the moment. He has “only” four goals and 13 points in 13 games. Patrice Bergeron has 19 points in those 13 games.
Jeremy Swayman is claiming the starting goalie job, even as Tuukka Rask works out at the Bruins facility, probably prepping for an NHL return later this season.
Boston is also just two points ahead of the Penguins with one game in hand.
The Boston Bruins are good, and they’re going to click very soon. They will be tough to catch.
Detroit and New Jersey are four and three points, respectively, ahead of the Penguins, but if the Penguins right their wrongs, the Penguins should finish ahead of both.
Pittsburgh Penguin Statistical Hope?
In an odd twist, the Penguins have the sixth-best xGF (expected goals-for) in the NHL at 53%, and the Penguins are getting about 53% of the high-danger scoring chances at 5v5.
Generally, those are good signs.
The New Your Rangers are in third place in the Metro Division, seven points ahead of the Penguins. However, New York has the second-worst xGF at only 43%.
If you’re reading statistics, the numbers say the Penguins will explode, and New York will tank. The Flyers aren’t much better with an xGF at 47%.
Boston is at 55%.
But don’t get too excited by the statistical hope. Hockey is funny, and you probably know my stance on numbers–they’re lovely to look at, but if you rely on them, you’re going to have a distorted view.
Montreal is at 52% xGF, yet the town is about ready to tear it down as the team can’t find wins. Yeah, the numbers are nice, but no one is waiting for the Canadiens’ breakout, either.
Playoffs or Bust?
For just the second time since 2014, the Pittsburgh Penguins still have their first-round pick. Their 16th straight playoff appearance is in as much jeopardy as many feared, and as we opined this summer.
Boston is going to claim one of the playoff spots. We can rest assured of that. Florida, Toronto, Tampa Bay, and Boston seem a lock to make the playoffs. They’re all going to put up big regular-season points.
The good news is the Penguins trail the genuine playoff contenders by only two points. The beginning of the bad news is Stanley Cup contenders, the New York Islanders are two points behind the Penguins. The fish sticks haven’t yet adapted to being the hunted rather than the hunter, and they’re all out of sorts.
The Islanders won’t be this bad for long.
The question is–can the Penguins find their spark and get into a good rhythm? Negative momentum is corrosive, and too much more of it could put the Penguins in an untenable situation, especially if Philadelphia finds its footing first.
The Penguins are tied for the second-fewest wins in the Eastern Conference. They’re just one ahead of Montreal and the Ottawa Senators.
No more ties. No more blown leads against pulled the goalie.
They don’t want to trail the Flyers by five or six points at Christmas. Their playoff hopes would be in severe jeopardy should that happen.
It’s almost go-time for the Pittsburgh Penguins, ready or not.