The Pittsburgh Penguins are going to make the playoffs this year, but how long they stay in the playoff race will likely depend on their play over the next couple weeks. Pittsburgh is 46-21-5 on the season, easily leading the Metropolitan division. However, in March, they hold a mediocre 6-7-1 record, causing them to relinquish the Eastern Conference lead to the red-hot Boston Bruins. With only two games left in the month, the Pittsburgh Penguins are hoping to put a poor March behind them and end the season strong.
The struggles started for Pittsburgh almost immediately after the Olympic break. It should come as no surprise, as the team sent seven players to Sochi, including their top line center Sidney Crosby and two of their top 4 defensemen, Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin. While the players for certain other teams rested during the Olympic break, Pittsburgh players received very little break in play, possibly causing the dip in play that the Penguins have seen in March. They lost their first two games after the break, a defensive disaster 6-5 loss to the Montreal Canadiens and a 5-1 shellacking to the Chicago Blackhawks. They followed that with a close win over the lowly Nashville Predators, then were stomped by the San Jose Sharks 5-3.
Their toughest stretch of the month came in a back-to-back scenario against their in-state rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers. Steve Mason stopped 25 shots and the Flyers put up 40 against Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury in the first game of the home-and-home series, where the Flyers easily took a 4-0 victory on the night. Crosby would say after that game that the Flyers were “better than us. All over the ice.” The following day, the Flyers again came away victorious, that game ending in a much closer 5-4. Pittsburgh’s special teams lost them the two games over the weekend, allowing the Flyers to score multiple goals on the powerplay and giving up more shorthanded goals than they scored on the powerplay themselves.
It will not get much easier for the Penguins or their fans, after it was announced recently that Russian superstar Evgeni Malkin would miss the remainder of the regular season with an injury to his foot. Malkin will join a growing list of injured Pittsburgh players, including shifty defenseman Kris Letang and backup goaltender Tomas Vokoun. Pittsburgh upcoming schedule is not going to be doing them any favors either. In addition to facing the likes of the Blackhawks and the Flyers again, the Penguins will also be taking a late season Western road trip going from Winnipeg to Minnesota and ending in Colorado.
Pittsburgh is in the midst of a three-game losing streak, but the good news is that they appear to be aware of their under achievement. After a 3-2 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes, they held a players-only meeting. It was one that was needed, as the loss was caused almost entirely because of stupid decisions made on the ice. The game was tied until forward Jussi Jokinen two-handed slashed the back of the leg of Phoenix forward Antoine Vermette as a retaliation for what he felt was an uncalled dirty hit. The ensuing powerplay allowed Phoenix to take the lead, and a slashing penalty by James Neal late in the game ended any opportunity for a Pittsburgh comeback.
These kind of mistakes are the ones that have burned Pittsburgh of late and ones that the team is hoping to correct before the playoffs begin. Odds are, they will not have to worry about their place in the standings, as they will be unlikely to catch up to the Boston Bruins and the New York Rangers are likely too far behind to reach them. This gives the team a lot of options available in the remaining games of the season. The Pittsburgh Penguins can use the games until the end of the regular season to experiment and find their mojo again, hopefully putting their poor March behind them.
This article is one in a daily series, providing coverage, analysis and predictions to NHL fans.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner