Boxes to check on Penguins' to-do list
Phil Kessel is a man of many gifts.
His rocket-fueled wrist shot tops the list. A personality that never fails to crack up his teammates is another.
His ability to keep things simple, however, is a talent that should not be overlooked.
The Penguins have 12 games left in the regular season. What should the team's No. 1 objective be as they play them?
“Make the playoffs and get ready for them,” he said after practice Tuesday.
Yep, that'll do it.
At the risk of overcomplicating matters, here's a more detailed look at five items that remain on the team's to-do list one month before the playoffs start.
Get Murray back
Goalie Matt Murray took shots without restrictions during a pre-practice skating session Tuesday and is scheduled to travel with the team on a two-game trip to New York on Wednesday and Montreal on Thursday.
That might be the best news the Penguins could possibly get at this point.
In the 10 games between the end of a personal leave of absence in January and the concussion he suffered Feb. 26, Murray went 8-0-1 with a .926 save percentage. Since then, Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith have combined to go 4-3-0 with a .891 save percentage.
It won't be easy for the Penguins to three-peat under any circumstances. Without Murray, it would be practically impossible.
“It's a big relief,” coach Mike Sullivan said.
Make the playoffs
First things first. Looking at the Eastern Conference standings, there are nine strong teams vying for eight playoff spots.
Is there a good chance the Penguins will be passed by Philadelphia, New Jersey, Columbus AND Florida? Of course not, but stranger things have happened.
“We don't have that X next to our name, yet,” defenseman Brian Dumoulin said.
Win the division
Home ice hasn't been too important for the Penguins over their past two playoff runs, but this season, they're 26-8-1 at home and 14-18-3 on the road.
That paints a pretty clear picture. Beating the Washington Capitals in the race for the Metropolitan Division title would give the Penguins the best chance to advance through the Eastern Conference bracket.
The Penguins and Capitals have been trading the division lead on an almost daily basis for the better part of the past two weeks.
“We've played really well on home ice,” Dumoulin said. “If we can secure that through the start of playoffs, that would be nice.”
Get Brassard going
The addition of center Derick Brassard at the trade deadline has given Sullivan the option to attack with three balanced lines. In that sense, the move has already been a success.
If Brassard gets more comfortable with Kessel and his new team's style of play and begins to put up numbers beyond the goal and assist he's recorded in his first seven games with the Penguins, it could be a home run.
“He's a solid player,” Kessel said. “He's a good two-way guy. He can make plays. He can score goals. Obviously, seven games is not that many. We have to finish the year strong and see how it goes.”
Survive the back-to-backs
In what promises to be a grueling finishing stretch, the Penguins will play four sets of games on back-to-back days over the last four weeks of the season.
Teams don't play on consecutive days in the postseason, so this test isn't directly related to playoff preparation.
It's more a matter of survival.
“You know you might not feel the best, but you still have to find a way to produce and find a way to win,” defenseman Olli Maatta said.
“I think we got a lot better with that compared to what we did in the beginning of the season.”