The Pittsburgh Penguins began the season facing down the prospect of 19 separate sets of back-to-back games, the most of any team in the NHL. In a division shaping up from the very first puck drop to be a tight race to the playoffs, performance in these back-to-backs was especially important; the Metropolitan was set to play the most back-to-backs of any division in the league. Five of the nine teams in the NHL with 16 or more back-to-backs were in the Penguins’ division, with the Carolina Hurricanes (18 back-to-backs), Columbus Blue Jackets (17), New York Islanders (16) and New Jersey Devils (16) coming in just behind the Penguins.
Managing rapid turnarounds between games was to be crucial for deciding who vie for a playoff spot. At the beginning of the season, these back-to-backs were killing the Penguins. The fact that they’ve started to manage them is part of the reason they’ve climbed into a playoff spot—and continuing to succeed in them will be crucial for the rest of the Penguins’ season.
Penguins’ First Half of the Season
The Penguins spent the first half of their season on the cusp of a wild-card spot. Their spotty record was in part because of the fact that they were getting killed by their many sets of back-to-back games. In their first six back-to-backs, they lost the second game every time; in three of those sets, they lost both games. They won both games for the first time in their seventh set in December, and only against a very weak Buffalo Sabres team.
This inability to bounce back and win the second game was a huge blow to the Penguins’ point totals in the first half of the season. Getting four points out of a possible 24 in those first six back-to-back sets wasn’t a rate the team could afford to sustain for the whole season. But the Penguins have turned that around, as they have many other aspects of their game, since the new year.
In the five sets of back-to-back games they’ve played since the beginning of January, the Penguins have split three and swept two to grab 14 points out of a possible 20. The Penguins have experience playing a lot of hockey in a short amount of time, and it’s starting to show in how they’re handling back-to-backs as the season narrows down to the last crucial stretch.
Penguins vs. the Rest of the Metro
Metropolitan Performance in Back-to-Back Sets of Games (2017-18)
|Won both||Lost both||Split||Left to play||Total|
Back-to-back games have been rough on the rest of the Metropolitan as well; it’s rare for a team to win both games in a set. Most of the other teams in the division are trending down in their back-to-backs rather than up. Unlike the Penguins, the Hurricanes, Blue Jackets, Islanders, and Devils all started out strong at the beginning of the season by winning a majority of their back-to-back games and are now starting to trend down. The Devils, for instance, have only won three of their past twelve back-to-back games, while the Islanders have only won four. The Penguins, who have won nine of their last twelve in back-to-back sets, are trending in a more positive direction.
That’s good news for the Penguins, as even after their last two games (back-to-backs against the Blue Jackets and the Toronto Maple Leafs, both wins) they still have six back-to-back sets looming before they can finish out the season.
Related: Penguins’ Third Deep Run Coming
Resilience in Back-to-Back Games
As the Penguins prove they can still handle back-to-back games, they show that they still possess a crucial quality for a playoff team: the skill to quickly bounce back from a loss or how to keep momentum going between games. The Penguins know how to play a lot of hockey in a short period of time, and it’s showing as they ramp up their game in this important stretch of the season. Their resilience is what made them such a dangerous playoff team these past few years, and if they can keep up their success in back-to-back sets for the rest of the season, then they will prove to be a very dangerous team come playoff time.
Julia Stumbaugh is a student at the College of William & Mary.