The Pittsburgh Penguins are providing a treat typically reserved for April and beyond, playing a brand of hockey over a seven-game stretch this month that has positioned them for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Penguins are 5-1-1 since March 1, with back-to-back wins over two of the NHL’s hottest teams that has them looking like Cup contenders.
Not to, you know, get ahead of ourselves.
The Penguins are no closer to making the playoffs than they are winning their third Cup in four years, but following a 4-2 victory over the Boston Bruins on Sunday with a 5-3 victory over the Washington Capitals on Tuesday was impressive. The Bruins were riding a 19-game point streak and hadn’t lost in regulation since Jan. 19; the Capitals had won seven straight.
“That’s what happens in this room,” Penguins winger Patric Hornqvist said. “That’s why we’ve been successful in the playoffs for many years. We have a veteran group in here who knows what it takes to play our best hockey when the stakes are the highest. It’s time for it now.”
Mike Sullivan knows playing high-stakes hockey has its risks and rewards, so the Penguins coach doesn’t subscribe to the practice of saving your best hockey for the playoffs. He’s counting on this not being so much a streak but rather developing into a pattern of play-the-right-way for the Penguins.
“I’ve never been a believer that you can just flip the switch when you want to and think you’re going to turn on your A-game,” Sullivan said. “My experience of being around the game is we’re all creatures of habit. We are what we repeatedly do if we get in a certain mindset or mode, play the game a certain way, make a certain commitment and do it game-in, game-out, it can only help us become a better team.
“That’s the way I see it. We’re trying to dig in here and do everything we can to win that one right in front of us. If we do that, it will continue to push us to be at our best.”
Surely, playing playoff hockey in March has to have its pros and cons, even if Sullivan seems so focused on the positives for the Penguins that he’s “not sure there is” a negative to their sudden surge.
“I’ve never been one to think you can put it in cruise control and think you’re going to turn it on when all of a sudden it really means something,” Sullivan said. “Right now, every game means something to us. We’re fighting for a playoff spot. We’re well aware of where we sit, and we’re going to fight every night to control what we can.”
I don’t disagree but do see pros and cons to premature playoff hockey:
Pro: Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel are playing at a high level, as both have scored six goals in the past seven games. Crosby has 13 points and is plus-4, and Guentzel has 10 points and is plus-6.
Con: It’s hard to believe that the duo can continue scoring at nearly a goal-a-game pace for the entire month on a team so top-heavy.
On the flip side…
Con: Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel have struggled lately, scoring a combined three goals and 12 points in the past seven games. Malkin is a minus-7 in that stretch, Kessel a minus-5.
Pro: Kessel ended a career-worst 16-game goal-scoring drought last week against Columbus and scored a power-play goal for Malkin’s 1,000th career point. Malkin and Kessel could be breaking out of their slumps together and at just the right time.
Pro: Matt Murray has been great in goal this month, with a .938 save percentage in seven games and a shutout at home against the Blue Jackets. He even played outstanding in loss at Columbus.
Con: The question is whether Murray can continue shining in net, given he has started nine consecutive games. There isn’t much room for rest with a game Thursday at Buffalo followed by back-to-backs against St. Louis and Philadelphia over the weekend before a critical game Tuesday at Carolina.
Pro: By beating the Bruins and Capitals, the Penguins have become one of the NHL’s hottest teams at the right time. They are 6-2-2 in their last 10 games and, with 89 points, are sixth in the Eastern Conference and third in the Metropolitan Division.
Con: Their slow start allowed little margin for error. Every game is critical. That’s especially true for the two against Carolina, which is only two points behind the Penguins in the Metro standings.
Then again, the Penguins are only two points behind the N.Y. Islanders and four points behind the Capitals for first place in the Metropolitan Division. But you have to wonder what type of toll playing at such a high level could take on a team in the postseason, when the grind of the Cup playoffs already makes it such a grueling championship to win.
That brings us to the most important positives and negatives of the Penguins playing playoff hockey in March: If they don’t, they might not be playing in any in April. So enjoy this brand, for as long as you can.