The Pittsburgh Penguins will be in a pretty precarious spot when they convene for practice Sunday afternoon at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.
They are 22-17-7, which leaves them in fifth place in the Metropolitan Division, five points behind third-place Philadelphia. They also are 10th in the Eastern Conference and trail Detroit, which holds the second wild-card playoff berth, by seven points.
The Penguins obviously are in very real danger of sitting out the Stanley Cup playoffs for the second consecutive spring, but they also are viable candidates to get back into the postseason.
Here are six reasons why:
1. A fine line
Members of the Penguins’ No. 1 line, which features Sidney Crosby between Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust, have accounted for 60 of the team’s 136 non-shootout goals to date.
Now, 10 of those have come on the power play and Rust hasn’t always been part of this unit, but Crosby’s line has been the team’s most reliable source of offense for most of the season and, barring injuries, there’s no reason to believe its output will slow anytime soon.
2. Metropolitan momentum
The Penguins have played exactly half of their allotment of games against Metropolitan Division opponents and have fared pretty well, going 6-4-3, which translates to 15 of a possible 26 points. (That projects to 95 points over an 82-game season, which is roughly what figures to be required to get into the playoffs.)
Their record inside the Metro includes a 4-1-1 mark in the past six. Maintaining that pace in the 13 games they have left against divisional opponents not only would improve the possibility of claiming a wild-card playoff berth, but could be enough to boost them into one of the top three spots in the division, which would guarantee them a place in the postseason tournament.
3. Tightening up
The Pittsburgh Penguins are allowing an average of 2.70 goals per game, the sixth-lowest figure in the league.
While that might not seem terribly noteworthy, it must be considered that during the seven-plus previous seasons Mike Sullivan has been behind their bench, the Penguins finished as high as 12th in the league defensive rankings only once.
It’s not that Sullivan suddenly has recognized the value of playing stingy defense; that’s hardly news to him and his staff. But the significance of it seems to have sunk in on his players, perhaps because they’ve accepted that their offense isn’t as volatile as it was in the past.
Whatever the reason, continuing their commitment to sound defense will be critical to whatever success they have the rest of the way.
4. Killing time
Opposing power plays scored four times on seven opportunities in the Penguins’ final three games before the all-star break, which is an obvious cause for concern.
Even so, there’s good reason to suspect their penalty-killing slump was an aberration, because the Penguins had allowed just 22 goals in 131 shorthanded situations before that midseason hiccup.
Although the Penguins’ success rate has slipped to 81.2 percent, dropping them to 12th place in the NHL rankings, their work while down a man for most of the season is cause to believe that the penalty-killers will rebound during what’s left of the regular season.
5. Kris Letang & Marcus Pettersson
Kris Letang lost his place as the undisputed cornerstone of the Penguins’ defense corps when they acquired Erik Karlsson last summer. He has responded with some of the best two-way hockey of his career, which is quite a feat for a guy who will be 37 on April 24.
Notwithstanding his overtime game-winner in the Penguins’ final game before the break, Marcus Pettersson isn’t usually much of an offensive force, but he’s been an outstanding complement to his partner, whether it’s Karlsson or Letang. His effectiveness in the defensive zone allows whoever is paired with him to take some offensive risks, potentially adding a dimension to the Penguins’ attack.
Whether their partners can elevate their games the way Letang and Pettersson have is hard to predict, but the impact of them doing so would be enormous.
6. Staying healthy
The Penguins have lost 126 man-games to injury and illness so far this season, up from 110 at the same point in 2022-23.
That might seem, at first blush, to be a cause for concern, but the Penguins have nine players who have appeared in every game to date, up from six at after 46 games a year ago.
And it’s not just random players who have managed to stay healthy. Of those nine players, Lars Eller is the only one who isn’t deployed on the first or second line or one of the top two defense pairings.
If they can continue to minimize the number of games their most important players miss, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ playoff prospects should only be enhanced.