The Pittsburgh Penguins have been maddeningly inconsistent.
This most recent stretch began with a sizzling victory over the New York Rangers last Thursday night. A game that saw Henrik Lundqvist lose his head and shove the net off its moorings after not being granted a stoppage in play due to an apparent injury. After letting Lundqvist in their collective heads for 11 of the past 13 games, the Penguins finally turned the tables.
Unfortunately, they followed up that inspired performance against the Blue Shirts with an absolute dud against the lowly Calgary Flames on Saturday afternoon.
Arguably one of the NHL’s worst teams, Calgary answered each of Pittsburgh’s first two goals in short order. Then Evgeni Malkin took a wretched penalty in the offensive zone that led to the eventual game-winning goal by Flames captain Mark Giordano. Calgary won 4-2.
Just shy of 24 hours after the debacle vs. the Flames, the Penguins took the ice at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. for a tilt against the New Jersey Devils.
“The Rock,” as it is affectionately known around the league, has been a veritable house of horrors for the Penguins. Prior to Malkin’s power play goal at 9:14 of the first period (after all-around tough-guy Tom Sestito, who was called up that morning, drew an instigator penalty against Jordan Tootoo), the Pens had been scoreless in Jersey in just over two games.
They responded to the sleep-walking effort they put on display against the Flames by flexing their muscle – not to mention their scoring ability – and routed the Devils 6-1. Malkin atoned for his abysmal showing in the previous game with two goals. Here is his second:
You don’t get very far in professional team sports without winning more games than you lose. In order to do that you have to, as Mike Tomlin (head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers) puts it “stack wins.”
In other words: you need winning streaks.
Obviously a “streak” is two or more games, but the Penguins haven’t been able to string together more than two wins in a row since the All-Star break in late-January (three wins prior and one win after the break).
Being consistently inconsistent is a good way to miss the playoffs for the first time in near a decade.
While the Pens haven’t exactly stacked wins over the past month-plus, they’ve also avoided losing more than two in a row since mid-January; a home-and-home with the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks (the game in Pittsburgh went into overtime).
The Metropolitan Month
Currently the Penguins record within the Metro Division is 8-7-2. Last season they finished an awful 9-16-2. They’ve not fared well within the division in the past two seasons, as compared to the 2013-14 season when they finished an impressive 20-9-1.
Sunday evening’s game against New Jersey dropped the puck on a nine-game stretch of nothing but Metropolitan Division opponents; wrapping up on March 26th when the Red Wings visit the Consol Energy Center.
This nine-game stretch will ultimately make or break the Penguins’ playoff hopes. They currently hold the first wild card position and would face the Tampa Bay Lightning if the Stanley Cup Playoffs opened today.
The victory over the Devils on Sunday opened up a seven-point advantage between Pittsburgh and New Jersey/Carolina Hurricanes. The Flyers however are right in the Penguins’ hip pocket; just three points back with 17 games remaining for each team.
The Penguins and Flyers will only face each other once in this string of nine intra-division games. The two teams will face one another to bookend the final week of the NHL’s regular season.
Superstars Need to be Super
As it is with any job; the more money you make, the more of the load you’re expected to carry. So it is in hockey.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are the two top earners in the organization. Down the stretch they need to produce like it. This team goes as they go.
They are not alone, however. Kris Letang, Marc Andre Fleury and Phil Kessel are among some of the highest-paid players in the league.
Letang has been nothing short of a Norris Trophy candidate since Mike Sullivan took over as head coach. Fleury is largely the only reason that the Penguins are in a playoff spot now. Kessel was brought in to score goals and take the pressure off 87 and 71. Speaking of consistency; Kessel needs more of it.
They’ll all need to step up come the spring.
Make no mistake, the once-cursed bottom-six of the Penguins have turned things around in recent weeks. Their energy and speed have led to good results for that group; despite some roster shuffling due to various injuries.
But this is Crosby’s and Malkin’s team. Especially in the playoffs. While it won’t be all about filling the net for the two stud centermen, it will be about creating opportunities not only for themselves, but for their linemates as well; which includes finishing scoring opportunities where presented. Something none of the Pens did particularly well in the early part of the season.
This will be a very telling stretch for the Pens. They’ve not had much success within their own division the past year and a half. The NHL’s schedule makers took a page out of the NFL’s book when they loaded up the Pens with intra-division rivalry games that should make for some spectacular theater, if not really good hockey.
Stacking wins is the priority. That priority must take center-stage, in earnest, now.