The Pittsburgh Penguins wrapped up the first half of their 2017-18 season with a 5-1 drubbing of the Philadelphia Flyers Tuesday night, in doing so snapping a two-game losing streak and avoiding the cellar in the Metropolitan Division. But while there were plenty of positives in the rare road win, it’s time to consider a Stanley Cup playoffs without the two-time defending champions.
The Post Mortem
The Penguins had managed only 21 goals in their previous 10 games, winning just three of those, and hadn’t scored five goals in a regulation road victory this season. In the second period against the Flyers, they scored four times in under four minutes, including the second goals of the season apiece for Ryan Reaves and Tom Kuhnhackl, an encouraging development given the ongoing struggles of every superstar not named Phil Kessel. Add in the return of Kris Letang and Justin Schultz to the blue line and it was a promising trip across the state.
The news wasn’t all positive, though, with Carter Rowney, Brian Dumoulin, and Tristan Jarry leaving the game with injuries. Even though their day-to-day status leaves uncertainty in the already struggling areas of defense, the penalty kill, and in net, the silver lining is that Pittsburgh still found a way to win. Good goaltending, pushing through injuries, and offensive outbursts were staples over the last two seasons and suddenly they were all on display in the same game.
Following Pittsburgh’s encouraging 5-4 shootout win over Columbus last week, the words “character” and “determination” were tossed around in columns and interviews. The same was true following Tuesday night’s victory. Now, the challenge comes in avoiding the immediate regression the Penguins saw last week when they followed the Columbus win with two dismal losses, scoring two total goals.
If Pittsburgh were to miss the playoffs, they would become the first back-to-back champs to do so in NHL history. It would also be the first time since 2005-06 that their season ended without a chance at the championship. During that stretch, which began after a four-season postseason absence, the Penguins played in the Final four times and won three Stanley Cups. They weren’t knocking on the door every season, but they were consistent and constantly building.
A disappointing season will also once again place the microscope on Sidney Crosby. While he still has a chance to play all 82 games for the first time in his career, he’s on pace to average under a point per contest for the first time and register a minus rating, something he hasn’t done since his rookie season when he finished a minus-one. He’s played a ton of hockey in the past two years and is the reigning Conn Smythe winner, but the notion his career is on the decline will once again become a popular conversation.
There will also be the lingering question about leaving Marc-Andre Fleury unprotected in the expansion draft. Long term, it was a no-brainer given Matt Murray’s age and quick rise, but the record-setting success of the Vegas Golden Knights can’t possibly, for the moment, go unnoticed in the Penguins locker room.
The Outlook for the Penguins
The situation could be worse. Pittsburgh continues to hang within a win or two of the second wild-card spot, granted, with a few extra games in hand. And they do have a few things in their favor down the stretch – the Penguins will play three more home games than on the road. While it’s a small variance, their home and road win disparity means they need every point possible at the PPG Paints Arena. Having next week off should allow the Penguins to address any health issues and get rested. And they have plenty of games against teams ahead of them in the standings, most notably three against the Carolina Hurricanes, who have been playing some of the best hockey in the NHL while the Penguins have struggled.
And then there is the Jim Rutherford effect. With the trade deadline looming at the end of February, the ability of the Pittsburgh general manager to work his magic of the past – with examples including the deadline acquisitions of Carl Hagelin, Ian Cole, and Justin Schultz – will go a long way in determining how deep into the summer the Penguins play.
Finally, there’s the memory of 2015-16 season to call upon. In mid-December, they were teetering above .500 with a new coach behind the bench. But a few big wins got them rolling and they registered 71 points in their final 50 games to win the fourth championship in team history.
The NHL season is a long and grueling affair not without its highs and lows for every team, but success ultimately comes to the team that got the hottest at the right time. For the first time in quite a while, though, it’s not a question of when the Penguins will get hot, but if.