The COVID-19 pandemic has unfortunately continued to hit the National Hockey League hard. The season started extremely positively, as the league and its teams avoided large-scale outbreaks. Canadian franchises were once again allowed to have fans in the buildings and cross the border to play. However, the rise of the Omicron variant required the league to postpone nearly 100 games as various teams dealt with outbreaks. The surge in COVID cases also caused the league to pull out of the Beijing Olympics, for which it had reserved a period of two weeks in February.
The absence of NHL players means the pause is no longer necessary, and the league will use this time to make up the host of postponed games from earlier this season. The Pittsburgh Penguins have had nine of their games postponed due to these changes, and the rescheduled games will come at a crucial juncture in the season and will have an enormous impact on playoff seeding.
Most of Penguins’ Opponents Currently in Playoff Positions
The rescheduled games take on significant meaning for the Penguins, as many of their opponents currently occupy playoff spots or are just outside the postseason picture. Games against the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Carolina Hurricanes will be circled on the metaphorical calendar. Each of those teams currently occupies a playoff spot, with the Hurricanes matchup attracting particular attention.
The Pens and Canes are neck-and-neck in both the Metropolitan division and league standings – the Penguins in fourth in the Eastern Conference with 57 points and the Hurricanes in fifth with 56 – and the game now scheduled for Feb. 20 will come in the thick of an incredibly close playoff race. The Penguins are yet to play the Canes this season, and the game in the league’s adjustment window will be the first of a potential ten total between the two teams. After all, if the season ended today, the Penguins and Hurricanes would meet in the first round.
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Some of the other notable opponents in the Penguins’ slate of rescheduled games include the Bruins (eighth in the Eastern Conference, 50 points) and the Maple Leafs (seventh in the Eastern Conference, 53 points). These games could very well become litmus tests of the Penguins’ ability and potential playoff previews. Depending on how much movement there is in the standings between now and the adjustment window, the Penguins could be well in line to match up with the Leafs or Bruins in the postseason.
Penguins Must Be Weary of Playoff Spoilers
Not only do the Penguins’ nine rescheduled games include three against current playoff teams, but the remaining seven come against teams that are either in the hunt or can reasonably be expected to be eliminated (or close to it) by the time the games are played. The Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators, and Columbus Blue Jackets are all currently on the outside looking in. Still, they’ll undoubtedly want to play spoiler if their positioning doesn’t change between now and mid-February.
Most of the Penguins’ rescheduled games are division games, and the Devils, Flyers, and Blue Jackets will be waiting to deal blows to the Penguins’ playoff position if they can. All three of those teams finished below the Penguins in the standings last season and will have something to prove, and must also validate their respective rebuilds.
The game against the Flyers may take on particular importance, as it could signify one of the last appearances for Flyers’ captain Claude Giroux. The Senators, meanwhile, are 30th in the league standings and currently in the midst of their aforementioned rebuild. A potential spoiler victory over the Penguins would help their development and grow their confidence. Sidney Crosby and the boys from the ‘Burgh will have to be wary of the ability to surprise on the part of teams below them in the standings, especially division rivals.
Penguins Finally at Full Strength
The Penguins’ roster began the season severely depleted. Many of their best players were out long-term, including superstar Evgeni Malkin, one of the team’s alternate captains and team leaders. Top scorer Jake Guentzel missed time with injury and COVID-19. Captain Sidney Crosby began the season on the shelf with a wrist injury; he only played in one game before Oct. 30 before contracting COVID-19 himself. Goaltender Casey DeSmith and forward Danton Heinen have returned to practice. Bryan Rust, Zach Aston-Reese, and Jason Zucker have all returned from their respective quarantines.
The Penguins managed to pull off a 10-game winning streak without Malkin, Rust, and Zucker. They’ve had remarkable successes since, stringing together multiple comeback victories throughout their current run. The returns of these stars only adds cohesiveness to their already sterling performances and star-studded lineup. As the season progresses, the Penguins will get healthier, just in time for what could turn out to be the most crucial stretch of the season.