With winning streak over, Penguins take stock of where they stand
The Pittsburgh Penguins tore through a 2 ½-week stretch, winning eight consecutive games and outscoring their foes by a 32-9 margin.
Now that the run is over, though, the Penguins are left with a simple question: What, exactly, did the winning streak accomplish?
“We are happy we are back where we are and, we feel, where we belong,” center Matt Cullen said. “But now, we still have a lot of work to still do. We still have a half a season.”
The morning of Dec. 19, the day the Penguins began their winning streak with a 2-1 victory at Washington, they sat two points out of the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot. On Monday, a day after their 5-3 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, they were two points ahead of the team holding the final playoff spot.
In other words, all the sweat equity the Penguins invested in a 17-day stretch of some of their best hockey in the Mike Sullivan era, all it earned them was a four-point standings flip?
“It’s hard to create the separation that you’d like,” Sullivan said, pointing to the league’s three-point games and overall parity. “But I do think it makes us a better team because every night’s so important.”
The Penguins’ longest winning streak among the parts of four seasons Sullivan has been coach, of course, was not completely for naught. The Penguins moved up to second place in the Metropolitan Division and within two points of the division-leading Capitals.
And even if it didn’t create any separation from the Eastern Conference’s ninth-best team (the cut-off for a format that sends its top eight to the postseason), it allowed the Penguins to pull away from the East’s dregs. The conference has sorted itself out into three easily identifiable standings tiers:
• The Tampa Lighting: in a class by themselves with 66 points
• Other Playoff Contenders: eight teams have between 49 and 56 points
• Maybe Next Year: nine teams have between 35 and 43 points
The Penguins are nine points clear of the 10th-place Carolina Hurricanes, and there is value in that. On Nov. 19, the Penguins not only weren’t clear of that third tier, they were at the bottom of it.
“We’ve put ourselves in a good spot,” Cullen said, “and I think the most important part for us is we keep our eye on where we want to be. We put ourselves right (near) the top of our division here, so we have to just keep staying the course. I think we found our recipe for success.”
Unless a Carolina or a Florida gets red hot, the playoff race (after Tampa Bay) has become eight teams for seven spots, so the Penguins like their odds. The organization, though, has its sights set much higher than just qualifying for the postseason, something it has done 12 years in a row.
And during the eight games before the disappointing loss to a sixth-place team Sunday, the Penguins looked every bit the legitimate Stanley Cup contender they strive to be.
“That eight-game winning streak, it was, obviously, fun when you’re winning, fun to be around the locker room and stuff,” defenseman Brian Dumoulin said. “And when you have that success, you want (more of) it. Obviously, this one loss it can’t set us back. We have to move by it and have a great game (Tuesday).”
When the Penguins host the Panthers on Tuesday, a loss means in 48 hours they would go from being the league’s hottest team to one that’s lugging around a losing streak. It also — theoretically, if all the teams immediately behind them in the standings win — could leave them clinging to a tie for the East’s final playoff spot.
Yep, the NHL is a crazy league these days.
“The other teams right next to us in the standings had some hot streaks,” winger Patric Hornqvist said, “and that’s part of this league. So many good teams, and you just have to make sure you win those games that you have to and work to climb in the standings every single day.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at email@example.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.