Penguins Predictions: Where will team stand at Thanksgiving?
After a particularly brutal 6-4 loss in Ottawa last Nov. 17, Pittsburgh Penguins center Matt Cullen made an astute observation.
“We need to have more urgency in our game,” Cullen said. “Time goes pretty quick here. We’ll find ourselves at Thanksgiving here soon.”
The wise old centerman knew that spot on the calendar was an important one. Since the 2004-05 lockout, more than 75 percent of teams that find themselves in a playoff spot at Thanksgiving end up qualifying for the postseason.
That stat didn’t hold up too well last season. Three Eastern Conference teams in a playoff spot at Thanksgiving – Buffalo, Montreal and the New York Rangers – ended up missing the playoffs, bumped out by Carolina, the Penguins and New York Islanders.
The Penguins were actually 8-8-4 on Thanksgiving, tied for second-to-last in the Eastern Conference standings. They were lucky enough to buck the trend and make the playoffs, but a better first two months might have ensured that clinching didn’t come down to the final weekend of the regular season like it did.
There’s an assumption that the Penguins, as a veteran team with championship experience, tend to struggle out of the gate because they don’t perceive early season games as all that important. Whether it’s true or not, that theory held no water last season.
The Penguins didn’t come out of the gate on cruise control. They actually got off to a 6-1-2 start. The problem came in November, where they put together consecutive five-game and four-game losing streaks.
With Cullen retired, the Penguins won’t hear his voice reminding them how detrimental a long early season losing streak can be. They’ll have to snap out of it on their own.
Where will the Penguins be in the standings at Thanksgiving?
A. Comfortably in a playoff spot
Two things could conspire to get the Penguins off to a quick start this season. First, the schedule. The Penguins play their first four games and seven of their first nine games at home. None of their first six opponents – Buffalo, Columbus, Winnipeg (twice), Anaheim and Minnesota – are sure-fire playoff clubs. There’s a little more travel in November, but it’s all quick up-and-back trips to places like Boston, Brooklyn, New Jersey and Columbus. Conditions are favorable to rack up some wins. Also, a big part of the team’s early season woes last year were attributable to goalie Matt Murray starting slowly while fighting an injury. If he avoids that fate again, the Penguins will be in better shape.
B. Barely in a playoff spot
When general manager Jim Rutherford spoke to the media after signing winger Brandon Tanev on July 1, he made an interesting observation about training camp. “The coach will have to work hard to bring it all together because you’ve got a few new guys. Where does everybody fit?” he said. Many of the changes made to the roster over the summer were designed to make the team harder to play against. That takes cooperative effort, and time to build chemistry could be required.
C. Out of a playoff spot
The Metropolitan Division should be significantly tougher this season because there are far fewer easy outs. Most notably, the Devils picked up P.K. Subban, Wayne Simmonds and No. 1 draft pick Jack Hughes. The Rangers added Artemi Panarin, Jacon Trouba and No. 2 draft pick Kaapo Kakko. Even if the Penguins get off to a decent start, they could be on the outside looking in.
B. Barely in a playoff spot
If the schedule were harder in the early going, it would be wise to predict the Penguins will be out of the playoff picture come Thanksgiving. If the Metropolitan Division hadn’t improved so much, it would be smart to guess that the Penguins would be in a comfortable playoff position. Both statements are true, though. Average them together and a good-but-not-great start is likely.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review assistant sports editor. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .