Penguins’ Final Push for First, Home-Ice Advantage at Stake

This NHL season has had a different feel to it than that of previous years. Whether it be the spark of old and new rivalries alike or the condensed schedule of 56 games in just about four months, this season’s games have been more intense and thrilling than ever before. As the season winds down and teams find themselves in the midst of an intense playoff push, every point becomes even more crucial, and the Penguins are no different.

With eight games remaining in their difficult schedule, the Pittsburgh Penguins have two games each coming up against the Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers, and Buffalo Sabres. This article will contain previews for the Penguins in each series, as well as to put themselves in the best position to grab the first seed in the MassMutual East Division, as well as claim home ice for the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Boston Bruins: Dominate Special Teams

The Penguins will take on the Bruins at PPG Paints Arena on Sunday at 3 PM and Tuesday at 7 PM, two of the more important games in this final stretch of the season for both teams. The Penguins come into the final two games of their eight-game series riding a three-game winning streak, all of which against the New Jersey Devils. On the other hand, the Bruins are coming off of a back-to-back split with the Sabres, scoring nine goals in the two-game span.

The Penguins currently sit at second in the division with a record of 31-14-3 (65 points), while the Bruins are claiming the final playoff spot with two games at hand on the Penguins and a record of 27-13-6 (60 points).

Jeff Carter Pittsburgh Penguins
Jeff Carter, Pittsburgh Penguins (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

In their six previous games against the Bruins, the Penguins own a -1 goal differential in the 2-3-1 stretch. The difference-maker in these games has by and large been special teams. The Penguins have scored on only two of their 21 power-play attempts in this series, amounting to a measly 9.5%, as well as a 72.2% penalty kill. On the other hand, the Bruins have held a 27.7% power play through these games, scoring on five of their 18 attempts, with an unbelievable 90.4% penalty kill.

To put it simply, the Penguins cannot win these two games without better special teams’ performances. The Penguins hold the eighth-best power play in the league at 23.3%, while the Bruins possess the second-best penalty kill at 85.7%. Production on the man advantage is a must against teams in the playoffs, and this two-game tilt against the Bruins will show how playoff-ready their special teams truly are.

Washington Capitals: Potential Playoff Preview

The Penguins-Capitals matchups rarely need much introduction when it comes to a regular-season tilt, let alone a series that will likely be the defining factor for both teams with regards to their final seeding heading into the playoffs. The Capitals and Penguins are separated by one point in the East Division standings currently, each having eight games remaining on their schedule. The Capitals will likely be without Alex Ovechkin for a portion of the near future, as he’s day-to-day with an upper-body injury suffered in a 1-0 shootout loss to the Islanders on April 22nd. The Capitals will meet the Penguins coming off a three-game set with the New York Islanders, who occupy third in the division and sit just three points behind the Capitals and two points behind the Penguins.

Mike Matheson Pittsburgh Penguins
Mike Matheson, Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

These games are undoubtedly going to have a playoff feel to them. The Penguins are looking to maximize their playoff window with their big three, and there’s no better way to prepare for a deep cup run than to obtain home-ice advantage. The Capitals and Penguins have been jockeying one another for first in the division in the previous few weeks, not playing one another since February 25th. A major key against the Capitals for the Penguins will be to stay disciplined and keep penalties to a minimum. The Capitals currently hold the league’s second-best power-play percentage at 26.7%, which comes to no surprise given their personnel.

Ovechkin, Anthony Mantha, Nickolas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, and John Carlson, to name a few, are among the league’s best power-play performers and very infrequently won’t capitalize on their opportunities when up a man. The Penguins have defeated the Capitals four of six times, allowing only three goals on 20 power-play attempts and boasting an 85% penalty kill. Continuation of strong penalty kill performances will not only help the Penguins take this two-game series with the Caps but put them in the best position to grab the first seed in the East.

Philadelphia Flyers: Better Road Performance

Similar to the Capitals and Bruins, it comes as no surprise that these games will be intense and gritty. The Flyers currently sit at sixth in the East Division with a record of 21-19-7 and 49 points, 11 points out of the final playoff spot with one more game played than Boston, who currently holds that position. While not impossible, Philly’s road to the playoffs is an extremely difficult one. However, with five of their final nine games coming against the struggling Devils, it’s conceivable that the Flyers could make things interesting down the stretch with some help.

Sam Lafferty Pittsburgh Penguins
Sam Lafferty, Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

While the Penguins are on a roll, they’ve had difficulty on the road that most other playoff teams in the division have not. The Pens are 12-11-1 on the road, ranking third out of the four playoff teams in the MassMutual East Division, sitting behind Washington (17-7-2) and Boston (13-8-3), but just above the Islanders (10-11-2).

With more fans filtering into the buildings come playoff time and home ice becoming ever so important, the Penguins need to work on their ability to win on the road, and no better way to do it than to beat the cross-state rivals. Should the Penguins hope to make it out of their deadlocked division, they’ll need to steal some games on the road, starting with their road series against their rival Caps and Flyers.

Buffalo Sabres: Testing the Depth

The Penguins will wrap up their regular season with two games against the worst team in the division in the Sabres. While they have by no means been impressive in any sense of the word, they’ve undoubtedly played an improved style of hockey since snapping their 18 game losing streak, going 7-5-2 since March 31st. The Sabres have improved to 13-28-7 on the shortened season, totaling 33 points. The Sabres currently rank 12th in the league in power play (20.6%) and 16th in penalty kill (79.5%).

While no game can be taken lightly in intradivisional play, the Sabres will have been out of playoff contention for exactly three weeks when the Penguins meet the Sabres for the last time on May 8th. In a sport where the body is put to the test so gruesomely in multiple seven-game series, injuries are inevitable, and the Penguins need to be sure their depth pieces are in game shape come playoffs.

Guys like Juuso Riikola, Chad Ruhwedel, Mark Friedman, Freddy Gaudreau, and Rahim Zohorna could take on bigger roles in this two-game set, depending on the standings. The Penguins have undoubtedly been tested this season with regards to depth, but keeping them in game shape in what could be considered a “conditioning” set of games could do their depth pieces some good before entering the first round.

The Penguins have no doubt been an intriguing team to follow and watch this season. With all the adversity that they’ve faced, they’ve proven that their depth and play style is built for another deep playoff run. While they’ve had a difficult, trying season that’s put their team chemistry and adaptability to the test, they’re now one of the deepest and most proven hockey teams in the postseason picture. With some fine-tuning and slight adjustments to be made before the playoffs begin in late May, the Penguins have as good a chance as anybody to raise Lord Stanley’s Cup.