This was supposed to be a requiem for the Pittsburgh Penguins. The way they had been playing the past month, it looked like their hopes of reaching the 2023 NHL Playoffs were gone. The April 4, 5-1 loss against the New Jersey Devils, in particular, demonstrated how old and lethargic the Penguins had become as teams around them became younger, faster, and brimming with talent. They had lost ground and a wild-card spot to both the New York Islanders and the Florida Panthers, and their vaunted playoff streak looked to be over.
But then came the next six days.
Sure, the Panthers kept winning, even pushing the Toronto Maple Leafs to overtime on April 10 to earn a point. The Islanders won two games last week, but they slipped up and lost to the Washington Capitals on Monday. As for the Penguins, they regrouped and won both games over the weekend, and thanks to the Islanders’ loss, they have their opening to make the 2023 Playoffs.
The Penguins’ Stage Is Set
This is it. The final week of the 2022-23 NHL regular season. As of now, the Panthers hold the first wild-card spot with 92 points in 81 games, and the Islanders hold the second with 91 in 81. The Penguins, on the outside looking in, have 90 points in 80 games. It might look like they only have a sliver of hope, but they have the advantage going in.
It was going to be rocky down the stretch, and the middle of March proved that. There was the four-game losing streak mid-month and then the embarrassing 7-4 loss to the Detroit Red Wings on March 28. At that point, it appeared the Penguins were done. But then they closed out the month by shutting out the Nashville Predators, and so far in April, they have gone 3-2-0.
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However, in their last two games, winning 4-1 against the Minnesota Wild and 5-1 against the Red Wings, they have regained their momentum. Their final two opponents, the Chicago Blackhawks and Columbus Blue Jackets, own the worst records in the league, each with only 56 points in 79 games, vying for the best chance to land Connor Bedard in this summer’s draft.
What Awaits the Panthers and Islanders (and Buffalo Sabres)
Much to the chagrin of the Penguins, the Panthers have been one of the hottest teams down the stretch, going 6-0-0 from March 29 to April 8. In that time, Matthew Tkachuk went into beast mode, scoring five goals and six assists while generating 24 shots. Though only scoring twice, Aleksander Barkov was just as involved, picking up nine assists.
However, they squandered a chance to clinch a playoff berth with the loss to the Maple Leafs, though they did earn some breathing room by picking up one crucial point. A key stat was Tkachuk’s eight shots on goal (SOG), as he will be looking to rebound in the final game against the Carolina Hurricanes, who will be looking to clinch the number two playoff seed in the Metropolitan Division.
As for the Islanders, they have been chugging along, playing their slow-but-effective style, and consistently winning games. They enjoyed a hold on the first wild-card spot for months until the Panthers made their move. Unfortunately, New York has suffered several crucial losses since the start of April, including Monday night’s loss to the Capitals, for a 2-3-0 record; they are as much to blame for the Penguins’ window opening as the Penguins themselves. On the bright side, in their season finale, the Islanders square off against the Montreal Canadiens, who find themselves with the league’s fifth-worst record and their own hopes of winning the Bedard sweepstakes.
Not to be ignored are the Buffalo Sabres, who muscled their way into the wild card conversation. They won their 40th game for the first time since 2010-11 with a shootout victory against the New York Rangers on Monday. Though they now sit with only 87 points, they have three games left. One of those, however, is against the Devils, who are jostling with the Hurricanes for the top spot in the Metropolitan. But should the high-scoring Sabres sweep their final three games, they could score a major upset and take the final wild-card berth.
Penguins Look to Stay the Course
If the past two games are a sign the Penguins have righted the ship, they will try to maintain that momentum to close out the season. One plus is that Nick Bonino and Dmitry Kulikov should be rejoining the lineup after lengthy stays on injured reserve (IR) (from ‘Seth Rorabaugh: Penguins forward Nick Bonino, defenseman Dmitry Kulikov close to returning,’ Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 4/10/23).
In the meantime, Sidney Crosby appears ready to carry the team into the playoffs by himself if he has to. Against the Red Wings, the Penguins captain scored two goals and added an assist not only to reach 90 points on the season but also 1500 in his legendary career. For his part, Tristan Jarry has been solid the last two games, yielding only two goals and posting an impressive .958 save percentage (SV%).
This is as crucial as it gets. Though Crosby hasn’t missed the playoffs since he was a rookie, he is no stranger to pressure. But with focus, he and the rest of the Penguins have shown they can step up and deliver. Should they perform the way they have in their most recent tilts, there is no reason the Penguins should not find themselves competing for the Stanley Cup after this week.