If, during the offseason, someone had told me that the Pittsburgh Penguins would exit the All-Star break in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, I would have laughed.
And yet there they are.
There is a good possibility that the defending Eastern Conference champions could be watching the action from the sidelines once the playoffs begin.
This week will be pivotal to the Penguins playoff hopes.
The next two games for Pittsburgh are against the New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils, the top two teams in the Atlantic Division. Divisional games are extremely important for the Penguins right now. If the Penguins win both of those games they will have 54 points. That will likely leave them in the same situation they are in right now. They will still be fourth in the division and they will probably still be out of the playoff picture. But if they lose those two games it could be the knife that ends the Penguins’ season.
Every game from now until April is important for the Penguins. They need to play every single game as if it is a playoff game. If too many losses pile up, they’re done. Two back-to-back losses against division rivals would make it extremely difficult for the Penguins to make the postseason. The Penguins need to win both of those games. They need to win them in regulation, and they need to win them decisively.
Their victory last Sunday against the New York Rangers was an impressive one. They shut the Rangers down and allowed them to create very little offense. It wasn’t just a victory but it showed the team that, if they buckled down and played a solid system, they could compete with the best teams in their division. Confidence if a huge factor right now. The Penguins cannot allow themselves to feel down. As soon as they start thinking they are beaten, they will be beaten. They need focus. They need to play a system that allows them to win and they need to play it for 60 minutes.
Decisive victories against New York and New Jersey will go a long way to restoring the team’s confidence. Right now they need something – anything – to build upon. Unfortunately they followed the victory over the Rangers with a lackluster loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. They lost focus in the second period of that game and they weren’t able to put the ‘Canes away in the third. The Penguins can’t allow another loss like that. If they are outskilled, fine. If they lose on a lucky bounce or a bad penalty, fine. But they cannot be outworked again. They have to play every single game for the rest of this season as a full 60 minute effort.
They can start this week against the Rangers and the Devils. This is where they need to put their heads down and just grind out some victories. The time for excuses is over. The time for talking is over. It’s time to act.