With only 19 games left in the 2018-19 regular season, the Pittsburgh Penguins are holding on for dear life to the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. That’s about where the good news ends. The Penguins currently are preparing for their next slate of games without the likes of Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, Chad Ruhwedel, and Bryan Rust.
With Letang, Dumoulin, and Maatta out indefinitely, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford traded for both Erik Gudbranson and Chris Wideman in order to just have enough bodies to put on the ice. On Feb. 26 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Ruhwedel and Rust were injured, and head coach Mike Sullivan announced that both players will be out long-term.
Coach Sullivan on players injured in yesterday’s game: “Rust is longer term with a lower-body injury. Ruhwedel is longer term with an upper-body injury.”
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) February 27, 2019
The Gudbranson trade was certainly a head-scratcher, but now appears to be an insurance policy that the Penguins will have to cash in with so many defensemen out of the lineup. Things are bleak, but even with a decimated roster, the Pens were able to put together a huge 5-2 victory over the Blue Jackets to put themselves back into the playoff picture.
With less than a quarter of the season remaining, here are three Penguins that must step up if they want to find themselves in the playoffs.
Phil Kessel Must Start Scoring
They say that the best defense is a good offense, and with the Penguins defensive core completely destroyed, they are going to need to start scoring four-plus goals per game if they want to give themselves a chance at the postseason. With 64 points this season, Kessel is second on the team in scoring behind only Sidney Crosby, but is currently in one of the worst scoring droughts of his career. I wrote earlier this season about how Kessel is the catalyst to the Penguins’ offense, and I believe that still holds true.
Kessel has zero goals in his last 13 games and continues to be a defensive liability. Usually his defensive lapses are outweighed by his offensive firepower, but when Kessel is not scoring, especially on the power play, he becomes a problem. I called for Kessel to be traded about two weeks before the Feb. 25 trade deadline and was hoping Rutherford would greater address their defensive problem, but with the deadline in the past, Kessel has to find his game.
One of the things he needs to do is start shooting more. He has nine assists during his 13-game scoreless streak, but his pass-first mentality has cost him multiple scoring opportunities. In nine of the last 13 games, Kessel has registered either one or zero shots on goal. When facing a scoring drought, the best thing you can do is just throw the puck on net as often as possible, and, eventually, the puck will start bouncing your way and find twine. Kessel understands the situation his team is facing, so look for him to take his game to another level over the final stretch of the season.
Erik Gudbranson Must Adjust Immediately
When the Penguins first traded Tanner Pearson to the Vancouver Canucks for Gudbranson, the trade was viewed as a massive win for the Canucks, and it’s not difficult to see why. Gudbranson is currently dead-last in the NHL in plus/minus and his advanced metrics are far from pretty. The one thing that he adds to the Penguins roster is much-needed size and toughness, and if he can just keep the puck in front of him, he should be fine.
Gudbranson: "My game's pretty simple. Keep stuff in front me, be tough in front of the net, and be physical on guys. That's my plan."@Guddy44 is bringing a different dimension to the Penguins blue line: https://t.co/BT5vPJ60Gk pic.twitter.com/7c2PU5Kogc
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) February 27, 2019
In his first practice with the Penguins, Sullivan paired him with Marcus Pettersson, which should make for an interesting duo. While he adds little offensively, Pettersson has been stellar defensively since being traded to the Penguins earlier this season. If there is an anchor that can make up for Gudbranson’s common turnovers and collapses, it’s Pettersson. At 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, Gudbranson needs to hit everything that moves and not be afraid to drop the mitts if the opportunity presents itself if he wants to make a positive impact for the Penguins.
It All Comes Down to Matt Murray
The fact of the matter is no matter how well the Penguins play in front of him, the rest of the season is going to come down to Matt Murray. When Dumoulin and Letang both went down on Feb. 23 on the same controversial play against the Philadelphia Flyers, Murray’s eventual collapse cost the Penguins a crucial victory against a division rival.
Holding on to a one-goal lead late in the third period, Murray let in an embarrassingly soft goal with 19.7 seconds remaining. A Claude Giroux shot in overtime trickled through Murray’s legs, and the Pens were humiliated on national television. Murray bounced back two nights later against the Blue Jackets by making 21 saves on 23 shots, and will need to continue to play well if the Penguins want any chance at making the playoffs.
While Penguins fans are quick to point the blame at Murray, he is 15-5-1 since returning from injury on Dec. 15 and his struggles are commonly greatly exaggerated. In those 21 games, he has only given up four-plus goals five times. Considering he is about to be peppered with shots on a nightly basis, he will need to continue to stop the first shot and trust his defensemen to clear any and all rebounds that present themselves.
As the 2019 trade deadline approached, many Penguins fans were likely hoping that Rutherford was going to make more of a splash than he did, but by holding on to their 2019 and 2020 first-round picks, he preserved the team’s future and showed that he has faith in their depth. With only 19 games remaining, the Penguins still have the talent up front to win the Metropolitan Division despite all the injuries they have faced, but if Murray falters in between the pipes, they could very easily find themselves on the outside looking in.