In the grand scheme of life or hockey playoffs, the Pittsburgh Penguins are confident they’ve punched their ticket to the big dance and done enough to secure third place in the Metro Division. How do I know? Like you, I also watched the game Tuesday night against the Detroit Red Wings. That was not the same Penguins team which beat rival Carolina, heavyweight Cup favorite Nashville, playoff teams Dallas, Washington or Columbus.
When the Penguins are engaged, they are one of the best. When they’re not engaged…oh boy, they’re one of the worst.
For example, on the first shift of the game Penguins winger Jake Guentzel zipped a cross-ice pass to no one but a pair of Detroit forwards at his own blue line. Detroit immediately had a scoring chance. It was apparent seconds into the game; the Penguins were in for a long night. Check out the full game analysis and report card here.
Detroit is not a physical team nor or are they tough to play against. Quite the opposite, actually. Sure, they have won six in a row, but the dreadful, pathetic 2003-04 Penguins won 15 of their last 21 games, too.
“I don’t think we were as good as we needed to be as a team,” head coach Mike Sullivan said.
The Penguins can deny it, they will and should deny it, but they overlooked Detroit because they could. It wasn’t Detroit’s speed which doomed the Penguins. It was the Penguins who doomed the Penguins.
“It’s not like they’re faster than other teams. There’s a lot of teams in the league that have speed,” Sullivan said through a tight jaw. “I don’t think we had the puck enough in the offensive zone. As a result, we were robbing ourselves of the opportunity of forcing them to have to expend energy to defend us.”
As noted in the PHN Extra Report Card, the Penguins had just one rebound chance. The Penguins had more one and done opportunities than John Calipari.
They merely need to win one more game to get into the playoffs or watch the Montreal Canadiens lose to Washington on Thursday or Toronto on Saturday.
The next Penguins player to mention seedings or express specific wishes about seeding would be the first. I genuinely haven’t sensed a moment of concern by the Penguins players. Their coach? Yes. But the Penguins players have carried themselves with an air of confidence and did so again Tuesday.
The Penguins can beat anyone. They know it. And so a team like Detroit didn’t register. To their peril, it was apparent the Penguins are already looking ahead to the playoffs. Tuesday night seemed like a big game with a chance to vault into second place, but again, refer to exhibit A: The actual game against Detroit.
The Penguins left trailers uncovered like it was mid-February. Forwards got behind their defensemen like it was mid-January. They played on the rush without a hard net presence or sustained puck pressure like it was mid-December. And the team displayed all of the intensity of mid-November.
Today there will undoubtedly be wailing, worry and angst in the Penguins fan base. Such emotions will be the antithesis of the feelings in the Penguins locker room which realized only too late they forgot about Detroit.
“We can’t be frustrated. It’s a useless emotion at this point,” Mike Sullivan said. Perhaps he is in the right church but the wrong pew today. Frustration? No. However, anger, regret, and eagerness to avoid the same mistake Thursday night when they again face Detroit could go a long way to righting the wrong they committed.
The Penguins need not win out to claim third place. The magic number to do that is three points. A win and a game which goes beyond regulation will do.
Or perhaps the Penguins fall to the first wild-card spot. Their magic number to claim at least the first-wild car is also two points. And if the Penguins do drop to the top wild-card and draw Washington in Round One, who do you think is more afraid of that matchup–the Penguins or the Capitals?
And that’s why the Penguins lost in Detroit. Because they could. They just can’t do it again.