The 82-game NHL season can feel like it lasts forever, but the end is in sight with 60 games already in the books for most teams. With 21 games left, the Pittsburgh Penguins sit comfortably in the second playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division with 74 points, one point behind the division-leading Washington Capitals and nine points ahead of the last wildcard spot. That’s a comfortable lead, but there are crucial points up for grabs in this last stretch — and the teams in the Metro will be fighting between each other to claim those for themselves.
The Penguins and the Metro Playoff Picture
Out of the Penguins’ last 21 matches of the season, 11 are against teams in the division. They face every other team in the division at least once, including three match-ups against the New Jersey Devils and two apiece versus the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders. Every single one of these teams (with the exception of the New York Rangers, who are slowly dismantling their team in preparation of a rebuild) will be vying for a playoff spot.
For the Blue Jackets, Islanders and Hurricanes especially, this last stretch will be what determines whether or not their team will be making a playoff appearance. The Penguins’ opponents will be bringing everything they have to these last, most important matches of the season.
Six of the Penguins’ 11 Metro match-ups are away games; one of them (against their old friend the Capitals) is a home game, but on the second half of a back-to-back. There are two crucial things for the Penguins to watch out for as they fight to stay the course during this last difficult stretch while playing motivated rivals and more often than not on enemy ice.
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Focus on the Power Play
The Metropolitan is a weak division on average in terms of killing penalties. Three Metro teams (Flyers, Blue Jackets and Islanders) are bottom four in the league in penalty kill success, while two others (Capitals and Hurricanes) just barely clear the top 20. The Rangers (sixth overall) and the Devils (ninth) have stronger penalty kills — the Devils also have eight shorthanded goals on the season, tied for second in the league. Nevertheless, the Penguins, who boast the number one power play in the league at a 26.5% success rate, have the clear advantage over the other teams in the division when on the man advantage.
The other Metropolitan teams already know this. In the Penguins’ Feb. 18, 5-2 win, the Blue Jackets went a full sixty minutes without taking a penalty, playing a clean game in hopes of avoiding the Penguins’ lethal power play at all costs. It’s likely this is a strategy quite a few teams will employ against the Penguins over this last stretch. A well-timed drawn penalty or two could be important for the Penguins as they push towards the season-end.
Need to Fight Fatigue
The Penguins went into the season scheduled to play the most back-to-back games of any team in the league. They still have six sets left in these last 21 matches of the season. Although the Hurricanes also have six back-to-backs left, the Penguins play every one of their back-to-backs against a team that’s gotten at least one day of rest, while two of the Hurricanes’ are against a team that’s also on the back end of a set of games, making both teams equally exhausted and evening the playing field.
This relative lack of rest will be a difficult barrier for the Penguins to overcome, but there are two bright spots. One is that the Penguins only once face a divisional opponent on the end of a back-to-back (that’s the Capitals, on April 1.) The other positive is that the ability to find quick turnaround between games is crucial for the playoffs –and if the Penguins can heat up in their back-to-backs approaching the postseason, they could find the momentum to carry them on another playoff run.
The Penguins’ Final 21
These two aspects of the Penguins’ game — setting themselves up for success on the man advantage and their ability to manage fatigue — will prove to be crucial not only in this last stretch of play, over half of which is live-or-die matchups against divisional opponents, but also going into the playoffs as the team fights to make their third deep run in a row. Getting far in the NHL playoffs is all about heating up at the right time, and now would be the time for the Penguins to manage those two aspects of their game and gain some momentum.
Julia Stumbaugh is a student at the College of William & Mary.