Now that the NHL trade deadline is in the rearview, teams are making that push for the playoffs in the final quarter of the 2022-23 season. For the Pittsburgh Penguins, who currently own one of the two wild cards, it means extending the league’s current best streak of playoff appearances and attempting to win one more Stanley Cup with their aging core.
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But the final 20 games won’t be easy. Unlike a team like the Boston Bruins or New Jersey Devils, the Penguins don’t have the luxury of taking any nights off. They will be facing tough competition from teams comfortably in playoff spots and several teams either fighting to stay in the hunt or to play spoiler. Let’s take a look at the road ahead for the Penguins.
Location, Location, Location
Currently, the Penguins sit with a record of 32-22-9, with 73 points and a .579 points percentage following their victory Tuesday night at home against the Columbus Blue Jackets – more on that in a bit – the first of the final 20 games. That gives them a three-point cushion with two games in hand against the trailing Florida Panthers. They trail the New York Islanders by one point and have three games in hand for the first wild card, and a greater sense of comfort.
On the plus side, 12 of the Penguins’ final 20 games are at home, where they had been a solid 16-9-4 even before Tuesday. On the road, however, in spite of owning a winning record, they hardly have been dominant, or even consistent, for a 15-13-5 record.
But the road travel might not be so brutal, as only two of those eight games are against Western Conference foes, namely the Colorado Avalanche and the Dallas Stars. Both of those games look to be tough, with one against the reigning Cup champs and the other against a current division leader, respectively. However, both those teams face their own travel trials heading into their matchup with Pittsburgh.
Colorado has an eastern swing through Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, and Detroit before meeting Chicago and then Pittsburgh. Dallas starts in Buffalo before back-to-back contests with Seattle, a trip through Vancouver, Edmonton, and Calgary, and then returns home for yet another game against Seattle and then finally Pittsburgh. In both cases, the teams could be road weary before facing the Penguins.
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However, the road games versus Eastern opponents won’t necessarily be easy. The Penguins’ final two meetings of the season are against the Detroit Red Wings, who find their own playoff hopes dwindling and would jump at the chance to spoil a conference rival’s trip to the playoffs. Three other road games take them to New York to face the Rangers twice and to New Jersey to battle the Devils. Both teams, of course, bulked up considerably at the deadline and hope for deep runs in the postseason.
As for the Penguins’ home games, PPG Paints Arena might offer some comfort. But only some. There are favorable matchups there against the Philadelphia Flyers, Montreal Canadiens, and Chicago Blackhawks, all teams hoping to land Connor Bedard in this summer’s entry draft. However, they’ll play tough games against the Rangers and Islanders, plus the Ottawa Senators, Washington Capitals, Nashville Predators, Minnesota Wild, and Bruins, all teams either tuning up for their own playoff runs or teams fighting to get in themselves.
A Breakdown Along Playoff Lines
Another way to look at the Penguins’ final quarter is by opponents who are playoff-bound and those who are not. At first glance, it doesn’t look too bad. They face seven teams with playoff spots in nine games. But when looking at the Penguins’ record versus these teams, a more unfavorable picture emerges.
Against current playoff teams they’ll see in this final stretch, the Penguins have gone only 4-6-2, with their record against the Islanders and Devils especially concerning. So far, the Islanders have taken all three matchups and are outscoring the Penguins 14-7. Against the Devils, they have managed only to eke out one point, a 2-1 overtime loss on Jan. 22. And that was before the Devils added prized winger Timo Meier at the deadline.
Their toughest stretch might be the final seven games, as they’ll face off against Detroit, playing spoiler at Little Caesars Arena, and then the Devils, Wild, and the mighty Bruins, who by that time will be closing in on 60 wins in their historic season. Of those four teams, the only one the Penguins have beaten is the Wild, a 6-4 victory back on Nov. 17 as part of a five-game winning streak.
Facing the likes of the Senators, Capitals, and Predators could also prove to be a handful. Even though the Penguins have a favorable record against the three so far, a 3-0-2 record, each will be fighting for their playoff lives, as well. However, six games against teams like the Canadiens, Flyers, Blackhawks, and league-worst Columbus Blue Jackets, including March 7, could help the Penguins’ push.
It Could Be Bumpy for the Penguins
As their streakiness portends, these final 20 games could have Penguins fans white-knuckling it. The Tuesday night matchup against Columbus was a shining example. The visiting Blue Jackets opened the scoring and took a commanding 4-0 lead after only 2:37 into the second period — an ugly display.
In fewer than 5 periods since NHL trade deadline, Penguins are being out-scored 8-1.— Rob Rossi (@Real_RobRossi) March 8, 2023
Casey DeSmith relieved Tristan Jarry before the Penguins mounted a comeback. Two goals from Jason Zucker and one each from Jake Guentzel and Danton Heinen tied the game at four and sent it to OT. Seeing three different players producing is positive but frustrating nonetheless that they had to spot the opposition four before waking up. In heroic fashion, Sidney Crosby won the game 5-4 with a blast on the power play for his 28th of the season. It’s a sight that fans have grown used to, but one has to wonder how many of those there are left.