Penguins Need to Make Their Own Luck in Playoffs Push

Last week was an eventful, if nerve-wracking, one for the Pittsburgh Penguins and their fanbase. It began with them in the playoffs, and then they lost to the New York Islanders and the Edmonton Oilers on home ice and found themselves not only below the playoff line but in tenth place in the Eastern Conference. Then over the weekend, they beat the Blues in St. Louis and won at home against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Once again, they find themselves back in the playoffs, with games in hand even on the seventh-place Islanders. This up-and-down rollercoaster has fans both worried that the Penguins’ 16-year playoff streak will end and has them calling for the firing of Ron Hextall as general manager (GM).

Ron Hextall Pittsburgh Penguins
Ron Hextall, GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins (Photo by Evan Schall/NHLI via Getty Images)

As frustrating as the situation is, they can still salvage what’s left of the regular season and make the playoffs. But as competitive as the East is, with as many as seven teams fighting for the two wild card spots, securing a playoff berth may come down to luck. Which isn’t reassuring. The Penguins can’t always rely on their opponents and will have to start making their own luck if they want to make this year’s postseason.

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The Good and the Bad From the Outside

Since the All-Star Game, the Washington Capitals have been on the fade, which is a real boon to the Penguins. They’ve gone 2-7-0, and their offense has dried up, producing only 22 goals over that period. When it was announced that Mikhail Ovechkin had passed away on Feb. 15, it was understandable that Alex would take time off to grieve.

For the Penguins, the misfortune meant at least some relief, as the Caps struggled to find offense with their captain out of the lineup. But Ovi surprised many by returning 11 days later, missing only four games. However, his return has not been fruitful, either, as he has only picked up a goal and two assists in the five games he’s played since his father’s passing. Before Ovi scored in the 7-4 loss to Buffalo Sunday, his last goal came, ironically, against the Penguins back on Jan. 26. The Caps find themselves two games above .500 and outside the playoff picture, but it isn’t wise to bet against Alex Ovechkin.

Alexander Ovechkin Washington Capitals
Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The same cannot be said for the New York Islanders. Since the All-Star Break and acquiring Bo Horvat, the team has played well, winning six and earning a point in eight of their last 11 games. Offensively the team has been only adequate, but they have gotten solid goaltending from both Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin, as each has posted a shutout in recent weeks. More importantly from the Penguins’ perspective, the Islanders beat them in both their meetings, helping their cause and almost sinking the Pens. They now find themselves in the first wild card spot, though they have the fewest games left of the teams contending for it.

Meanwhile, the Islanders’ upstate neighbors, the Buffalo Sabres, find themselves with their best chance to make the playoffs in years. They have rattled off four wins in their last five games, doing the Penguins a favor by knocking off the Capitals, and Tage Thompson continues to roll by reaching the 40-goal mark in that game. They still struggle defensively but sit second in goals scored, and they are currently one point behind the Penguins with one game in hand.

Related: Penguins in Need of a Big Change

The Florida Panthers, one of the teams to fall to the Sabres recently, are also in the hunt. Much has been made of their fall since last season’s Presidents’ Trophy, but they sit just outside the window, five points back of the Islanders with two games in hand. A puck bounce here, a holding call there, and they could find their way back into a wild card spot.

Then there are the Detroit Red Wings, who have been one of the hottest teams in the league fighting for a playoff spot. Though some may have written them off prior to the All-Star Break, they have won seven of their last 11, and more importantly proved they could win without captain Dylan Larkin. After losing Larkin to a game misconduct, the Wings did the Penguins a solid by knocking off the Capitals 3-1. They, too, have been in and out of a wild card spot and sit three points back of Pittsburgh. However, they play the Ottawa Senators on Feb. 28, the second of back-to-back meetings, of which Ottawa won the first, and if the Sens can take both, the Wings could be sunk, and they will be hot on the Penguins’ heels. 

The Penguins Need to Do More Themselves

Inconsistency has dogged the Penguins all season, and since the break, they have gone 5-5-0. Four of those losses were consecutive, and two of those were at the hands of the Islanders. The return of Tristan Jarry hasn’t gone smoothly, either. He was in goal for the second of those losses against the Islanders, and he was chased after yielding the first six goals during that embarrassing defeat to the Oilers.

And then there has been the frustration surrounding Jeff Carter and the third line. Carter has been cold since the beginning of 2023, scoring only three goals and adding an assist in 23 games. However, he did score during the team’s second-period outburst–more on that in a moment–against the Lightning and had a chance in close on the power play against the Islanders, so maybe his luck is turning around.

Jeff Carter Pittsburgh Penguins
Jeff Carter, Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Kasperi Kapanen, however, who had scored only two goals and eight assists in 27 games since his hat trick against St. Louis back on Dec. 3, found himself on waivers this week. He was picked up by the St. Louis Blues. That move opened up some cap space, but the Penguins are still in trouble there.

In their game on Feb. 25 against the Blues, the Penguins controlled much of the play in the first period, firing 21 shots, but they couldn’t solve Jordan Binnington. The urgency in their play was good to see, as they were playing for their playoff lives, but it took them 48 shots to win 3-2 in overtime. Still, they got the job done.

They followed that with a statement game against the Lightning the next night, where the game looked like it might go for the Penguins as things have recently with them trailing 2-1 after the first period. But their offense exploded for six goals in the second. Six different players scored, including the first of the season for Brian Dumoulin, and both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin led the charge. Perhaps the effort shown this past weekend is a sign that the team has turned a corner and will ride this momentum the rest of the way. 

Trade Deadline Turning into Arms Race

Meanwhile, there have been several deals made in the East heading into Friday’s trade deadline with the Lightning, New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils all making big moves that make even the Islanders’ acquisition of Horvat seem minor. The Penguins, in spite of their cap situation, would do well to make a move, especially if they can work out a deal that includes some salary retention. At the very least they need some stability on defense, but also more contributions from their bottom-six forwards.

Despite how last week began, the last two games have shown that there is still a flicker of hope for the Penguins. For all the handwringing and worry their post-All-Star Game performance has caused the Pittsburgh faithful, they have shown that when pressed they can get the job done. Still, there is work needed in the final push. All they need is some positive energy and a lot of luck.