The last time the Pittsburgh Penguins (42-27-12) took the ice against the Buffalo Sabres (23-50-8) at First Niagara Center on Nov. 8, Pittsburgh won its seventh consecutive game in a 6-1 route. Sidney Crosby erupted with five assists, while Kris Letang showcased his Norris Trophy-caliber talent and notched four points (2g/2a) in perhaps his most dominating performance of the season.
The Penguins looked unbeatable after handling top teams such as Nashville, Anaheim and Minnesota. Alas, time has not been kind to Pittsburgh. After climbing to that 10-2-1 start, no one close to hockey expected what could be a must-win in game-82 just to obtain a wildcard spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. However, with Letang out of the season after an unnecessary late hit by Arizona’s Shane Doan on March 28, and a host of other injuries to top players, Pittsburgh seems to be an odd-on favorite to miss the tournament for the first time since 2006.
See up close shot of Doan hit on Letang (Beware of profanity):
— Stephanie Vail (@myregularface) April 4, 2015
The Penguins are winless in April (0-4-1) and 3-9-2 in their last 15. The 2014/15 season could be remembered as one of the most disappointing in team history, which will be blamed on anything and everything from leadership to management…even coaching. If Pittsburgh defeats Buffalo, gets into the playoffs, and somehow makes a run…not likely…all may be forgiven. The problem, however, is that the Sabres have played teams very well in recent weeks, much to the chagrin of their fans who actually rooted for the club to tank in the name of Connor McDavid. Goaltender Anders Lindback (4-7-2) has posted a .923 save percentage and a 2.81 GAA since being traded from Dallas. His team won three of the past five games, even though it guaranteed itself the worst record in the NHL. Now, with nothing left to play for except pride, the Sabres have a chance to eliminate a franchise from post-season play that most everyone outside of Pittsburgh loves to hate.
Here are things to watch for heading into the all-important season finale at First Niagara Center.
No Penguins Players Want to Win More than 71
Evgeni Malkin has been struggling with an undisclosed injury for weeks now. In his absence this season, the Penguins are 3-8-2 and noticeably incomplete. After the meltdown in Columbus one week ago, Malkin guaranteed that he’d play a day later in Philadelphia…a decision that was obviously fueled by will, not personal preference. The former Conn Smythe winner is a minus-6 with zero points in the three games since his return, and is clearly still ailing. When questioned about his injury after Friday night’s loss to the Islanders, Malkin snapped a bit at reporters.
Asked Malkin yesterday about his health. Offered a stern, “I can play. It’s important.” Translation: not healthy, not close. #pens
— Rob Rossi (@RobRossi_Trib) April 11, 2015
The superstar center continues to support his squad even through these trying times. He’s adamant that his team has what it takes to make the playoffs and succeed against any team, but he might be the only one that believes it. That said, no one wants to win more than Malkin. The problem is that, when injured, he is nowhere near the same player. In this, a must-win game, Malkin will be a major factor in whether or not the Penguins punch their ticket to the round-of-16. Look for “Geno” to empty the tank against the Sabres .
The Penguins Will AGAIN Go With Five Defensemen
It’s not easy to defeat an NHL team, especially one led by Crosby and Malkin, but there is a formula to greatly increasing your chances if the opposition only dresses five defensemen. The Islanders followed suit Friday night by consistenty chipping the puck deep until the Pittsburgh defensemen no longer had enough energy to chase their forwards. The result: Two breakaway goals and an easy tap-in for John Tavares. Michael Grabner, who already one of the fastest skaters in the League, blew by Ian Cole for the back-breaking third goal of the game.
Salary cap issues or not, management’s choice to dress only five defensemen is unconscionable. What’s more is that Head Coach Mike Johnson put 13 forwards on the bench, and flat-out did not use one of them, Craig Adams, against New York. GM Jim Rutherford clearly stated that he does not want to put any players through waivers, but having a useless body on the bench is even worse. The Penguins have played with only five defensemen several times over the past two weeks with the expectation that Letang and Christian Ehrhoff would return for the playoffs. After watching the hit on Letang over and over again, it is obvious that long-term injury reserve would have been the best choice. The Penguins may not win the cup without the all-star defenseman, but they are struggling to make the playoffs with only five blue-liners. Management truly dropped the ball on this. It’s no wonder the team only has enough gas to perform for a period or two. Expect Buffalo to chip the puck deep, and thoroughly exhaust the Penguins defense. If the forwards cannot maintain possession for most of the contest, it won’t end well for Pittsburgh.
Penguins’ Magic Number is Two
There are many scenarios that get Pittsburgh to the playoffs. Though, you know it’s bad when players ask the media about scenarios.
It’s bad when players start asking reporters if Tampa has something to play for against Boston. So, it’s bad in #pens land right now.
— Rob Rossi (@RobRossi_Trib) April 11, 2015
- If Pittsburgh wins, it is in.
- If Boston loses in regulation, then Pittsburgh is in.
- If both Ottawa and Pittsburgh win, the Penguins will finish with the second wildcard.
- If Pittsburgh wins and Ottawa loses in any fashion, the Penguins will finish with the first wildcard.
- If the Penguins get a point in overtime, and Ottawa loses in regulation to Philadelphia (three-point swing), the Penguins get in by virtue of regulation and overtime wins (ROW) even though Ottawa has the same number of points. In this scenario, if Boston wins, it heads to Montreal as the first wildcard and Pittsburgh goes to Madison Square Garden as the second wildcard to face the Rangers. A Boston loss in Tampa means the Penguins face the Canadiens and the Senators battle New York.
- If Pittsburgh gets a point in overtime and Boston wins in a shootout, the Penguins are in by virtue of ROW. In this scenario, if Ottawa loses in regulation, the Penguins finish as the first wildcard. Any points by Ottawa puts Pittsburgh in the second wildcard spot.
*Note: Detroit could also finish in either wildcard spot, as well as third in the Atlantic.
- If Boston wins, or loses in overtime, and the Penguins lose in regulation, Pittsburgh will be eliminated
Grab your antacid, Penguins fans. It’s going to be a wild night.