All season long, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been jostling with their Metropolitan Division rivals at the top. They have traded places with the Carolina Hurricanes, New York Rangers, and Washington Capitals over and over, and it seems the battle for playoff positioning won’t be decided until the last possible moment. The Hurricanes, currently first in the Metro division, and the Penguins, who are third, are separated by a mere six points. The Penguins and the Rangers remain neck-and-neck, one point between them.
If the Penguins want to reach the league’s mountaintop, the first obstacle they’ll face are those same Rangers. They travel to Madison Square Garden one more time this season, a rivalry game on April 7. Based on the three games they’ve played so far, the Penguins will need to put on a more consistent performance, not least because the Rangers are slotted as a potential playoff opponent.
Penguins Put on Two Different Performances in the Last Week
The Penguins and Rangers didn’t have their first head-to-head matchup until Feb. 26, and have played twice in the past six days. Pittsburgh lost both of those games, and played drastically different in each. The first of the two contests was perhaps the worst all-around game the Penguins have played thus far. Right from the drop, the Penguins looked lost, as New York built a 3-0 lead before Sidney Crosby and company even realized where they were. Just 2:07 into the first period, Alexis Lafraniere gave the Rangers the lead, and Chris Kreider followed shortly afterward with his 43rd of the season in an eventual 5-1 Rangers’ victory (from ‘Penguins Rocked Early, Never Recover Against the Rangers,’ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 25/03/2022).
The Penguins were utterly dominated by the Rangers all night. Coach Mike Sullivan, Crosby, and others echoed the same sentiments postgame: the team played terribly. Both Penguins’ goaltenders, Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith, saw action in that game, and were both eventually replaced by each other more than once. Crosby and Sullivan summed up the Penguins’ play in few, but harsh, words, with Sullivan saying:
“We got outplayed in every facet of the game. We struggled making tape-to-tape passes. We couldn’t execute. We made poor decisions. We lacked awareness. We just weren’t good in any aspect of the game.”Penguins’ coach Mike Sullivan on his team’s poor play in the March 25 game versus the Rangers.
The following meeting between the two, however, was much better, at least from the perspective of overall play. Though they still exhibited areas of weakness (12 shots registered at the end of the second period, for instance), it was a much better game than in New York on March 25. In fact, the two matches were polar opposites. Jarry and Rangers’ goaltender Igor Shesterkin combined for a mere 55 saves, and only four penalties were called across 60 minutes of play. Sullivan saw a much better performance from his players, noting:
“It was a way different game tonight than on Friday. It was a way different game. It was a low-event game. I don’t think there were significant scoring chances on either side. I think that’s a testament to both teams’ commitment to defend hard. “It just felt like you’re fighting for every inch of ice out there in all three zones. We were trying to force them to do the same. They got a couple of looks. They finished.”Penguins’ coach Sullivan on the different performance in the second Penguins-Rangers game of the past seven days.
Overall performance inconsistencies aren’t the main issue, as the Rangers have limited the Penguins’ high-powered offence in the season series so far.
Penguins’ Stars Held Off Scoresheet in Season Series
Although the season series against the Rangers only began on Feb. 26, the Penguins have encountered stiff resistance in the sense that they can’t seem to get their best players to register points against the Blueshirts. The sole members of the Penguins’ traditional stars to score against the Rangers are Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Malkin potted the winning goal on Feb. 26 in a 1-0 victory, and Crosby scored what would ultimately be a meaningless goal in the most recent 3-2 defeat. Still absent from the scoresheet versus the Rangers are Jake Guentzel, currently second in team scoring, and Evan Rodrigues, currently fifth.
Instead, the Penguins have seen good play from some of their bottom-six. In any other context, this would be a remarkably positive occurrence (and it is, nonetheless). However, given the likelihood that the Penguins and Rangers will meet at some point in the playoffs, the fact that the Penguins’ big guns haven’t contributed nearly as much as they should against an opponent this powerful potentially signals a problem should the two teams meet in the postseason.
In short, the Penguins need to steal the show in the final game of the season series, lest they become victims of another onslaught at the most important juncture of the season.
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Covering the Pittsburgh Penguins and other topics for The Hockey Writers. Also a big fan of the Chicago Cubs and progressive rock music.