Last week I feel that we learned a little bit more about what kind of team the Penguins are at this point of the season. Winning two out of three this past week was more impressive than winning two out of three on their Western Canada trip. Not all wins are the same and this past week proves that. Shutting out Edmonton and Calgary and then getting blown out by Vancouver is certainly not the same as dominating Detroit, staying tough and getting the shootout win in Ottawa and outplaying, but losing in a shootout to one of the best teams in the NHL in Chicago. Pittsburgh’s next two games will do a lot to show Penguins fans and the NHL if the Penguins have rounded the corner and are a serious contender for the Stanley Cup, or if these are, as Penguins fans like to say “the same old Penguins.”
The Penguins start this week with two home games against two known Metropolitan foes in Washington (Feb. 17) and Columbus (Feb. 19). The Penguins have not fared well against the Metropolitan Division this season, which I wrote about a few weeks ago in my post on the Penguins “Metro Problem.” They are currently 7-9-4 against Metropolitan foes, which ties them with Buffalo, Philadelphia and Carolina with the second most regulation losses against teams in the Metropolitan Division. Only Toronto and Tampa Bay have more Metro losses this season. As for Washington and Columbus the Penguins are a combined 0-3 against these clubs so far this season and were outplayed for the majority of all three of these games.
The Penguins first faced off against Columbus on December 13 in what became a very physical and hard fought game, literally. This game had a number of fighting and roughing penalties and it seemed clear to me that Columbus established themselves as a legitimate rival to the Penguins during this game. The Penguins were not only outhit, but they were also outplayed for the majority of the game, but they would not go down easily as Kris Letang, in his second game back from injury, notched his second goal of the game with just under eleven seconds left to tie the game and send it to overtime.
The Penguins went on to lose the game 4-3 in a shootout. Penguins fans might argue that they forced overtime and played very well without Sidney Crosby or Marc-Andre Fleury in the lineup, so therefore the rematch on Thursday night this week should do a lot to show how much has changed between December and now.
Pittsburgh’s play against Washington this season has been horrendous. The Penguins were shutout by the Capitals 3-0 on December 27, in a game in which the Penguins were outplayed and out-shot despite having Marc-Andre Fleury in net and Sidney Crosby on the ice, who tallied a +/- of -3 that night. Pittsburgh’s next outing against Washington, on January 28, was even worse as the Capitals not only beat Fleury for the second time this season, but once again outplayed and out-shot the Penguins who looked lackadaisical as one can see here in Alexander Ovechkin’s second goal of the night.
How do you not put a body on or near #8 in this situation? Ovechkin has been nailing this shot all year and for some reason he is just left alone to pot this PPG. Overall this season the Capitals outscored the Penguins 7-0 and have out-shot them 70 – 58. What might surprise some Penguins fans is that Pittsburgh was statistically the more physical team in both of these games as they out-hit the Capitals 46 – 29 and 26 – 21 respectively, but they in no way looked like the dominate team in either of these games.
If Pittsburgh can play solidly, by continuing to be physical, out-shooting and keeping their opponents from taking such high-quality shots, there is a good chance that they can get a win against these two Metropolitan foes and they need those wins now more than ever. Wins against these teams might turn the tide on their recent Metropolitan woes and allow them to turn the corner in the season and show the NHL that they are true contenders for the Stanley Cup. Now, whether or not you agree with those points, Penguins fans have to at least acknowledge that the Islanders and Rangers are not going away any time soon so if the Penguins want to win their division this year they have to start winning these intradivisional games. These next two games should answer some more questions about the Penguins potential progress moving forward, but more than anything it will certainly answer whether or not these are “the same old Penguins.”