Tim Benz: Penguins need consistency — and a sweep — this weekend
Is a sweep against the Calgary Flames and the New York Rangers too much to ask of the homestanding Pittsburgh Penguins this weekend?
After all, they will have played four games this week. They have tricky back-to-back weekend afternoon starts.
Also, Calgary comes in Saturday with one of the highest point totals in the league. Plus, players are hopping in and out of the Pittsburgh lineup because of injuries, suspensions and trades.
Forget all that. The answer is, “no.” No, it isn’t too much to ask for a sweep. In fact, a sweep should be required.
“Everyone knows the stakes are high,” coach Mike Sullivan said after practice Thursday. “We are in playoff mode right now.”
The Penguins must get in gear, and it looks like that might — might — be starting.
They have won two in a row. Already this week, the Penguins went on the road and beat the hated Flyers in the spit-and-vinegar game the rivalry often delivers.
Then, in the latest edition of Sidney Crosby vs. Connor McDavid, the Penguins improved to 6-0 against Edmonton when both players are skating.
So, the team is still flashing an all-too-familiar routine of playing well on the big stages after playing down to the moment in less significant-seeming games.
Now it’s time to take back-to-back wins and stretch that solid play into a legitimate winning streak.
Regardless of the opponent.
Too much of this Penguins season has been spent in fits and starts. And too often the team has left points on the table at inopportune times, killing momentum.
• October closed on a four-game winning streak, only to be countered by a five-game losing streak to open November.
• At the beginning of December, a three-game winning streak could have been five if not for an overtime loss to Ottawa and a regulation defeat in Chicago. Those two teams were struggling mightily at the time. For their part, the Blackhawks had lost eight in a row before that win on Dec. 12.
• An eight-game winning streak ended perhaps too early when the Penguins lost to Chicago at home again on Jan. 6, thus giving away two more points. That streak then was largely undone when the Penguins dropped nine of 14 between that day and Feb. 9.
Just four of the six possible points the Penguins frittered away in those three combined games versus Chicago and Ottawa would improve their current point total from 67 to 71, which would be good for second place in the Metropolitan Division. Instead, they are clinging to the last wild-card spot.
It’s time for the Penguins to prolong a winning streak. The need is obvious to counter losing four of five to begin February. Winning these two games against the Flames on Saturday and the Rangers on Sunday would get them over .500 for February.
And that’s at least a start.
“The league is so tight,” Sullivan said. “Every game is so important. By nature of having fewer games, the stakes get higher.”
Winning both games this weekend won’t be easy. Calgary is tied with Winnipeg and San Jose for the highest point total in the Western Conference (75), despite losing their last four games. They score 3.63 goals per game. That’s the third-best total in hockey. And their power-play percentage of 22.4 is ninth best.
Conversely, the Rangers stink. Their 56 points are second worst in the Metro. Only Anaheim generates fewer shots per game than the Blueshirts do (28.6). And New York’s scoring average of 2.73 goals per game is the worst in the Eastern Conference.
Their penalty kill of 77.7 percent is 25th in the NHL. And they have just nine road wins. Only the Devils and Senators have fewer.
As a result, their visit to PPG Paints Arena on Sunday should scare Penguins fans to death, given how bad the Pens have been against lesser teams this season.
“We have the capability of getting to another level, this group as a whole,” Sullivan said. “Inconsistency is a big part of it.”
An extended streak of hot play is overdue based on the organization’s pace last season.
At the 50-game mark last year, Mike Sullivan’s team went on an 11-1-1 tear which went a long way to securing their playoff position as the second seed in the Metro Division.
This year’s edition is now 57 games deep. It has had no such hot stretch in the second half. As a result, it has no such playoff security.
Four points this weekend would go a long way toward pushing something like that into reality in 2019.
And if that reality occurs, they can pretend much of this up-and-down 2108-19 season never happened.