Penguins Running out of Time to End the Funk

On Monday night, the Pittsburgh Penguins broke out of a four-game losing streak with a 4-1 win over their red-hot rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers. The victory gave the team a three-point lead over the Carolina Hurricanes for the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.

During the four-game skid, Pittsburgh was outscored 15-8 and outshot 141-116. On the season, they’re allowing 33.3 shots on goal per game, fourth-highest in the NHL.

Despite the slump-busting win, it’s obvious the Penguins aren’t fully past their struggles. The Flyers outshot them 51-28, including a ridiculous 28-8 during the second period. Pittsburgh also registered a negative-17 Corsi as a team. If things don’t change quickly, the Penguins may dig themselves too deep of a hole to crawl out of.

Playoff Implications of the Upcoming Schedule

Including Monday’s game against the Flyers, five of the Penguins’ final eight games in February are against Metropolitan opponents. The other three contests will be at home against tough Pacific Division opponents, including the first-place San Jose Sharks. With just seven points separating the top four Metropolitan teams, this stretch is crucial to Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes.

Prior to the four-game skid, the Penguins were second in the division and just two points out of the top spot. The Metropolitan is the tightest in the NHL, making the margin of error razor-thin at this point in the season. If the season ended today, Pittsburgh would take on the dangerous Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs. The Lightning are the best team in the NHL and will likely only get better at the trade deadline; this is not a matchup that Pittsburgh wants.

Matt Murray Jack Johnson Devante Smith-Pelly
Matt Murray and the Pittsburgh Penguins are all too familiar with the Washington Capitals.  (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The New York Islanders have thrown a wrench into the playoff picture. A team that few expected to contend this season now has 72 points and sits atop the division. That bumps the Washington Capitals to second, making them another likely first-round opponent for the Penguins. Then again, it’s not playoff hockey if there’s no Penguins vs. Capitals, right?

What the Penguins Need Down the Stretch

With the NHL Trade Deadline set for Feb. 25, the Penguins have just two weeks to right the ship and set their final roster. If they hit another small skid where some players underperform, GM Jim Rutherford might look to make a splash to relight the fire.

He’s already shaken up the roster by acquiring Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann, as well as Tanner Pearson and Marcus Pettersson earlier in the season. With plenty of capital in the next few drafts (including all of their first-round selections), Rutherford may not be shy about making more moves, and everyone on the roster needs to earn their keep this month.

However, the best move at this point is simply getting healthy. After missing five games with an upper-body injury, Evgeni Malkin made his return Monday and assisted on Bjugstad’s first goal as a Penguin. Those two with Phil Kessel on the second line could be a lethal combination of size and skill.

Penguins forward Phil Kessel
Phil Kessel and Nick Bjugstad look to ignite the Penguins’ playoff push. (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

Next, Justin Schultz and Zach Aston-Reece are expected to return very soon. The pair shed their non-contact practice sweaters and resumed full activities with the team. Aston-Reece will provide the fourth line with more scoring and a physical edge as he bumps Garrett Wilson from the lineup.

Things get interesting when it comes to the defensive pairings. Schultz’s timing is perfect as Olli Maatta was placed on injured reserve with an upper-body injury after taking a tough spill into the boards Monday, appearing to jam his shoulder in the process. When both of these blueliners are healthy, they will pair together behind Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin.

On the bottom pair, Jack Johnson continues to suck the life out of this roster. Regardless of whom he skates with, he bogs the team down with a negative-4.8 relative Corsi.

One of the very few silver linings is his physicality, but the Penguins lead the league in hits by a wide margin. Beyond that, he makes the team worse when he’s on the ice as well as weakens the skaters around him. When Schultz and Maatta are healthy, Johnson needs to take a seat, even with the $16.25 million contract he signed this offseason.

Finally, goaltending is crucial, especially for a team that’s lost and regained its faith in Matt Murray a hundred times. The 24-year-old goaltender had a career night Monday, allowing just one goal on 51 shots. Since mid-December, he has a 12-4-0 record with a .935 save percentage. The Penguins will continue to rely on his consistency down the stretch as he’s arguably the most important factor in the team’s success.

It’s no secret that the Penguins not only have some of the best players in the NHL but also a deep lineup that has plenty of Stanley Cup experience. They remain playoff contenders despite a slew of injuries and long stretches of underperforming during the 2018-19 campaign. By the end of the month, the team will either be a Stanley Cup hopeful or looking at the playoff picture from the outside.