The Pittsburgh Penguins have been known all too well for their consistent playoff appearances, as they currently hold the longest playoff streak of any team in the major four sports (NBA, MLB, NHL, and NFL), at 14 years. With a shortened season, new divisions, new stipulations due to the difficulties of COVID-19, and much more, the Penguins, for the first time in a long time, appear to be in danger of losing this streak. With there being six playoff-caliber teams in this division and only four spots available, the Penguins will need to finish strong to make the final playoff push in this difficult season. This article will break down what the Penguins need to do against each divisional opponent to give them the best shot of making the playoffs.
One of the more unfamiliar opponents for the Penguins so far this season is the Bruins. The Penguins have played two games against the Bruins thus far, going 0-1-1 in their short road trip to Boston. Highlighted with their big guns in Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, along with key contributions from younger players such as Trent Frederic, Charlie McAvoy, and Brandon Carlo, the Bruins have squandered any doubt that they would take a step back performance-wise this season. The Bruins currently lead the division in point percentage (.690), penalty kill percentage (88.7%), and third in power-play percentage (25.0%). Unfortunately for the Penguins, this is likely going to be their biggest test in the second half of this season.
With six games remaining against the B’s (four at home), they need to win more of these games than they lose to prove their legitimacy as a contender not only in the division, but in the league as a whole. Luckily for the Penguins, they have the second most wins at home among all teams since the beginning of last season (31). I expect them to go 3-4-1 against the Bruins, splitting the final six with the immensely talented New England squad.
One of the more favorable matchups left remaining for the Penguins is that against the Sabres. Buffalo has massively underperformed this season so far, despite making multiple key acquisitions in Eric Staal, Cody Eakin, Taylor Hall, and more in order to bolster their current core with Jeff Skinner, Jack Eichel, Rasmus Dahlin, and Rasmus Ristolainen. The Penguins have yet to play this new-look Sabres team, with their first matchup coming up on March 11 in Buffalo.
To put it simply, the Penguins need to capitalize on this opportunity. The Sabres have been a rough watch so far this year, currently finishing last in the league in points (15). However, the mismatch in this upcoming duel is the special teams. The Sabres boast the best power play in the division so far (30.7%) and the Penguins currently own the second-worst penalty kill (73.5%). If the Penguins can manage to stay disciplined and keep the potent Sabres power play off the ice, I project the Penguins will finish this matchup 6-1-1, grabbing 13 of the possible 16 points in this season’s matchup.
New Jersey Devils
As mentioned previously regarding the Sabres, the Penguins have also yet to face off against the second-worst team in the division in the Devils. This season series kicks off on March 18 in Newark, marking the beginning of eight games between the two squads. The Devils are in a similar situation as the Sabres, currently second last in the league in points (16), as well as last in the division in power play (13.8%), and penalty kill (62.5%).
While the Devils have struggled to get any momentum in this short season due to multiple COVID-19 complications and a young core, they do have a speedy, skilled group that can surprise, including Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, Nico Hischier, and others. On top of that, Mackenzie Blackwood is having a good season considering the situation in front of him, posting a .912 SV% in 11 games so far this year, ranking third in the division among goaltenders who have started a minimum of 10 games. If the Penguins can manage to figure out Blackwood, as well as keep the odd-man rushes for the young, quick group to a minimum, I project the Penguins going 6-2 in this matchup, dominating the play in most, if not all, games.
New York Islanders
The Penguins know the Islanders all too well this season, going 4-2 against the Isles in their six games played to this point. The Islanders have an extremely different team composition than the remainder of the division. While most teams in this stacked MassMutual East Division are fast, offensive powerhouses, the Islanders are just the opposite. Their structured defensive trap system and opportunistic offensive setup make them a dangerous contender every year. The Isles have continued their success from last year’s bubble, going 13-6-4 with 30 points and sitting on top of the division.
The primary reason the Penguins have had such success over a tricky Islanders team is their ability to crack the stern defensive system they have in place. The Pens have scored an average of three goals per game on the Islanders, who allow just over two goals per game against the rest of the league. This consistent scoring on a team that typically puts a stranglehold on teams’ offenses is key. If the Penguins can continue to get depth scoring and put up consistent scoring against the Islanders in their final two regular-season matchups in late March, I expect the penguins to finish the season matchup at 5-2-1, collecting 11 of 16 points available against a stingy Islanders squad.
New York Rangers
Another team the Penguins have gotten to know since the season kicked off is the Rangers. The Penguins have faced off against the Blueshirts four times so far this season, going 3-1 and outscoring them 13-12 in that span. The Rangers currently sit at sixth in the division with a record of 10-9-3, trailing the Penguins by just four points with a game in hand. The Rangers possess the second-worst power play (15.7%) and the second-best penalty kill (86.5%) in the division.
Through the first four games between these two legendary franchises, the Penguins made four different comebacks, including at least one in every win against the Rangers so far. While not an offensive powerhouse, the Rangers have found a way to lock down defensively as of late. They are third in the division in goals against per game (2.59), allowing only 57 goals this season. If the Penguins can find a way to solve the Rangers’ recent success in the defensive end, as well as the young goaltending duo of Igor Shesterkin and Alexander Georgiev, I expect them to finish the season series at 5-2-1, splitting the final two with the up and coming Rangers team.
The Penguins’ season series against the Flyers has no doubt been the most action-packed thus far. The winning team of each game in this series has scored a minimum of four goals, with 37 total scored in five games. While this cross-Pennsylvania rivalry is typically action-packed, thrilling, and back-and-forth on a normal year, it has only been amplified with the current format of the schedule.
The Flyers’ success against the Penguins has been in large part due to their ability to create chances off the rush and from special teams. They have gone 5/20 on the power play against the Penguins, amounting to 25%, which is slightly higher than the league average of 21% this season. However, the Flyers have only mustered up 11 successful penalty kills on 16 attempts, equating to 69%, well below the league average of 79%. If the Penguins wish to take the series with their cross-state rivals, they’ll need to adjust their penalty kill to the potent Flyers power play. Should the Penguins make this adjustment, I believe they’ll even the series at four games apiece, going 2-1 in their final games with Philly.
The Capitals-Penguins rivalry rarely needs any introduction. Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin have faced off six times in this shortened season, with the Penguins going 4-2 in that span. The Capitals currently sit at second in the MassMutual East Division, going 13-6-4 with a .652 win percentage through 23 games played. The Caps possess the second most successful power play in the division (and fifth overall in the league), standing at 26.7%. They’re also second in the division with regards to goals for per game this season (ninth in the league), scoring 3.22 goals on average.
The biggest source of the Penguins’ early success against the Capitals’ reformed team is their special teams’ performances. The Penguins have been able to score around the league average against the Caps on the power play (22.2%), while also being 85% on the penalty kill. Along with this, the Pens have managed to score an average of 3.33 goals per game against the Caps, alleviating a lot of the pressure from Tristan Jarry and the defensive corps. I project the Penguins will split their final games of the season with Washington, finishing 5-3 against them on the year.
The shortened NHL season has resulted in a world of change for all people involved in the process that keeps the league functioning, primarily the players. The condensed schedule against intradivisional opponents only has provided an 80’s feel to the NHL again. The Penguins have found their way to a 13-9-1 record so far, placing them at fifth in the division. If the Penguins can make some slight alterations to their game plan against their opponents, they should be primed for their 15th straight playoff appearance and will compete for the fabled Stanley Cup in mid-May.