The Pittsburgh Penguins have a 99% chance to make the playoffs and their magic number is down to just 25 points with 16 games left in this grueling 56-game season. The fear and loathing in Pittsburgh after the Penguins abandoned their defensive game for two losses gave way to a sigh of relief on Thursday night and the Penguins unsung heroes were again at the center.
The statistics from PlayoffStatus.com
There will no doubt be a myriad of stories on 6-foot-6 Czech rookie Radim Zohorna on Friday. The most popular newbie since Dr. John Dorian (Scrubs reference) had a goal and an assist and was the subject of social media fawning.
Zohorna, 24, has a chance to establish himself as one of the Penguins’ top 12 forwards, even hen others get healthy, but he’s not yet one of the heavy lifters who have carried the Penguins through yet another series of extreme injury absences.
The players in the background when Evgeni Malkin and Kasperi Kapanen were laying waste to defensemen, the blurry guys in the picture when Sidney Crosby and Bryan Rust were torching score sheets are the ones now carrying the Penguins toward a 15th straight playoff appearance, the longest in the NHL.
While 25 points sound like a lot, that’s the equivalent of 13 games. Any combination of 13 Penguins wins and Philadelphia Flyers losses (12 for the New York Rangers) and the Penguins clinch. Split that number in half–the Penguins need to win six more games and the Flyers need to lose seven. Or vice versa.
Without Malkin and Kapanen, and Brandon Tanev in the lineup, the Penguins have recreated a second line from scratch.
Jason Zucker-Jared McCann-Evan Rodrigues.
“Every time (we) come off the ice we’re trying to pick out what we could have done better, where we’re going to be on the ice. And when you kind of know where your teammates are looking, you can make plays quicker and have more chemistry, make quicker passes and you feel more confident trusting your teammates,” Rodrigues said. “So I think just the talk and the chemistry we’ve continued to build well has been helping us and hopefully we’ll continue.”
Rodrigues has three points in his last four games. He was clearly one of, if not the best Penguins player in their wheels-off 8-4 loss to New York on Tuesday.
McCann is scoring at a career pace. He has 18 points (10g, 8) in just 27 games played this season. Before Thursday night, he had five goals in his last six games, which fortunately coincided with his shift to center in Malkin’s absence.
Replacing Evgeni Malkin in the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup is an impossibility, but McCann, Rodrigues, and Zucker have been posting enough points to keep the Penguins moving. Not only have they put the puck in the net, but with the exception of two games, the line has set a tone with hard, honest hockey.
They’ve driven opponents nuts with a hounding backcheck. And forecheck, too.
“I know it sounds pretty cliche, but we’re we’re working as a team, we’re getting pucks in when we need to get pucks in,” McCann said last week. “We’re doing all the right things to kind of help each other. And we’re taking advantage of their mistakes and capitalizing.”
Rodrigues has played fourth-line wing, center, and second-line winger this season. He kills penalties and has even picked up some power-play time.
The Penguins acquired him at the 20202 NHL trade deadline from Buffalo with Conor Sheary for Dominik Kahun. Rodrigues was essentially a throw-in who wanted out of Buffalo because he was frequently a healthy scratch. Rodrigues played a few good games for the Penguins last March, but the pandemic shuttered the season and the scrappy forward didn’t get a chance to more.
However, his contract expired and he was due a qualifying offer near $2 million. The Penguins included Rodrigues’ rights in their trade with Toronto for Kasperi Kapanen, but Toronto also declined to give Rodrigues a QO. So, he got a second go-round with the Penguins on a one-year, minimum $700,000 deal.
It’s been money well spent.
“We knew he could play up and down the lineup … He could kill penalties if we needed him to. He can play on a power play. He’s really a versatile player,” Sullivan said on Thursday night. “He’s a solid player on both sides of the puck. And so we believed that he could really fit into this team well. And he has … He can be an impactful player for us…”
Just another of the Penguins’ depth stepping forward and another reason the Penguins have a 99% chance to make the playoffs.