It’s down to the final 12 games of the season for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Call it the dirty dozen, or the telling 12, or just the tail end of the stretch run.
What happens in those games will, of course, determine whether the Penguins make the playoffs for the 13th straight year and where they will finish in the Metropolitan Division.
Looking at the makeup of the telling 12 games, this much is clear: If the Penguins get into the postseason, and if they are able to finish high in the division, perhaps even win it, they will come by their final spot honestly.
The Penguins play those dozen games over 24 days, including five games against Metro teams and four others against teams currently in a playoff position. The games are split evenly between home and road.
They scored an impressive 5-3 win Tuesday against Washington that brought them to within four points of the first-place Capitals in the division, a game with all sorts of interesting subplots for the Penguins – to name a few, Evgeni Malkin reached 1,000 points; the team spotted Washington a 2-0 lead, then scored three goals in a span of 1:48 in the second period; and they pulled off the game without defensemen Kris Letang and Olli Maatta, and wingers Zach Aston-Reese and Bryan Rust.
It’s unclear when any of those injured players might return – the Penguins are traveling to Buffalo Wednesday ahead of their game Thursday against the Sabres and aren’t practicing – but Letang seems closest.
The Penguins are not only four points from first in the Metro, but they are also just four points ahead of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. That’s tighter than Paul Coffey’s skates back in the day.
In case anyone is quick to shrug off Buffalo, a .500 team that is double-digit points away from a playoff spot and will be without leading scorer Jack Eichel as he serves the second game of a two-game suspension, keep in mind that the Penguins are 0-0-2 against the Sabres.
Let’s take a look at the rest of that 12-game remaining schedule.
The Penguins have home games against St. Louis, Philadelphia, Nashville, Carolina, Detroit and the New York Rangers, and road games against Buffalo, Carolina, Nashville, Dallas, the Rangers and Detroit. They are a collective 7-2-3 against those clubs. That’s promising, but circumstances could get in the way, such as the Penguins’ record against Buffalo.
They are 1-1-1 against Philadelphia, 1-1-0 against Carolina, and those Metro teams are on the bubble and desperate to get into the playoffs.
The Penguins have won their only meeting against both St. Louis and Dallas, but those teams also are scrambling to secure playoff spots.
The Penguins haven’t met Nashville yet. The Predators are pretty secure in a playoff spot, but they are in contention for the Central Division title and home ice in the postseason, setting up two tough games.
Two games each against the Rangers and Detroit would look to work in the Penguins’ favor. Both are also-rans in terms of the playoffs and so are playing for pride, jobs in the future and to serve as spoilers. The Penguins are 2-0-0 against the Rangers, 1-0-0 against the Red Wings.
Still, things don’t shape up as a breeze for the Penguins. They could still finish anywhere from out of the playoffs to the top of the division.
But, again, the way things look, they will come by their final spot honestly given the remaining lineup.
“There’s a fine line between winning and losing in this league,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said before the game against the Capitals. “The parity in the league is as good as it’s ever been. Every night is a hard-fought game. And that’s just the reality of today’s NHL.
“So I think the competitive advantage lies in preparation and execution and focus.”