NEW YORK — The Pittsburgh Penguins are officially five points out of an Eastern Conference wild-card spot. Reading the tea leaves and winning percentages becomes a different matter. The Penguins trail the Tampa Bay Lightning by five with three games in hand, but from there, it gets quite messy.
The Penguins trail the New Jersey Devils by two points with no games in hand and the Carolina Hurricanes by four points with two games in hand.
That’s the problem with five teams between the Penguins and a postseason berth. And, for the adamant crowd demanding a rebuild, you can rest assured the Pittsburgh Penguins management has heard your cries … and turned off the radio, at least for now.
The goal is to make the playoffs. They didn’t belly up to the bar and order 33-year-old Erik Karlsson, a $10 million Norris Trophy-winning defenseman, just to sell tickets or learn to speak Swedish.
Yet the Penguins’ grip on this season remains tenuous. Are they the team that finally went stride for stride with Carolina and won, or disinterested zombies who got pummeled in Tampa Bay, destroyed in Toronto, and were 20 minutes away from being embarrassed for a third time in Ottawa last Saturday?
All of those games happened within the last two weeks. Are they Clark Kent, or are they Superman? Do they yet know?
And for the second consecutive year, the New York Islanders might hold the key. The Penguins will face the second-place Islanders twice in four days.
Last season, the Penguins blew a pair of multi-goal third period leads to the Islanders and narrowly missed the playoffs (if they deserved the postseason is another matter).
They needed some wins in their current three-game stretch with Carolina, Ottawa, and the Islanders on Wednesday at UBS Arena. Since they’ve won one and earned a loser point, they’ve stretched their window on seriously getting back into the playoff race.
But at what point will they decide it’s time to go all in or cut bait?
In his press conference following the Penguins disappointing road trip through Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, and Florida, in which they were winless, president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas said the All-Star break was the fork in the road in which he would know which direction.
Of course, that was before a couple more pummeling losses.
Everyone expects the Penguins to eventually put the Hall of Fame pieces together and figure out the game of Perfection, but as soon as the seem to solve the puzzle of lethargy and terrible hockey, the clock hits zero, and the board pops into chaos again.
The sheer number of teams involved in the race surely complicates Dubas’s decision. They could be four points back but still have five teams between them and the magic cut line.
They could also be six points back and have only a few obstacles between them and the second wild card. However, banking on Philadelphia and Washington to start losing and Tampa Bay, Carolina, and New Jersey to keep losing more closely resembles daydreaming than reality.
In the days gone by, six points was the line of demarcation. Beyond six points, it was over, and within six points, it was a “go for it.”
The NHL schedule makers didn’t do fans nor teams any favors with fewer divisional games (A playoff spot should be decided by playing the teams you’re competing with. TV ratings and fan reaction, despite the high brow X responses that oddly popped up last summer, bear that out).
The schedule finally gets division-heavy in the second half of the season. The Penguins have a few more games, including Wednesday, with the Islanders and Capitals.
Dubas will have to decide if he feels his team can win those games because several take place after the 2024 NHL trade deadline. That Dubas-set D-day, the All-Star Game, is Feb. 3, which gives the Penguins little more than a month and 14 games to seize the day and control their fate.
Of those possible 28 points, the Penguins probably need 20 to get into a playoff spot or be on the cusp. For the sake of argument, let’s call that 9-4-2.
To get 95 points, which is probably the floor of getting into the playoffs, they need 61 of the 100 points remaining. Yes, that’s essentially greater than a .600 winning percentage.
Wins. They need wins over the next 14 games, or the remainder of the 100 points will be irrelevant. The question will not be if Dubas makes changes but how dramatically. The Penguins didn’t acquire Karlsson for a show, and he didn’t accept the Penguins’ trade to lose.
No, the math is not kind to the Penguins. Of course, they haven’t been kind to themselves, either. This is the hole they’ve dug.
They have the elite top line and are getting the necessary goaltending. It seems their future lies upon everything else.
The new math probably suggests they’ll need to be within four points of the spot because of the number of teams involved. Anything beyond that is hope, and as coach Mike Sullivan is fond of saying, hope is not a strategy.