Tim Benz: Penguins start make-or-break stretch on right foot
The NHL trade deadline is always an identifiable line in any hockey team’s season.
The way the last few weeks have gone, Penguins fans should see the first nine games out of the gate following the deadline as a make-or-break stretch in the season.
Between Tuesday night and March 14, eight of the nine dates for the Pens are against foes in the Eastern Conference playoff race. At puck drop Tuesday in Columbus, Mike Sullivan’s team was in ninth in the Eastern Conference, out of the playoff mix.
So far, so good.
A 5-2 win over Columbus on Tuesday vaulted Sidney Crosby and comp … well, maybe I should say … Jared McCann and company into a third-place tie with Carolina in the Metropolitan Division.
That’s because the Hurricanes also won. They whipped Los Angeles, 6-1.
The Penguins and Hurricanes have 74 points each. Because of tiebreakers, Carolina has the advantage over the Penguins, so Pittsburgh finds itself clinging to a second wild-card spot in the East. That’s a point behind Montreal, which has 75. The Canadiens also won big, crushing Detroit, 8-1.
The next eight games for the Penguins will go a long way toward figuring out if this franchise makes the playoffs for a 13th consecutive season.
They have two more matchups against the Blue Jackets on March 7 and March 9. The Blue Jackets are now the ninth-place team in the conference with 73 points. Plus, there are two games against the Sabres, one on Friday and one March 14. Both games are in Buffalo. The Sabres have 66 points.
Also during this run, the Penguins visit Montreal (March 2), host Boston (March 10) and welcome Washington (March 12). They all were in the playoff bracket after Tuesday’s games.
Throw in a March 5 game against the Panthers, too, if you like. But they are nine points out of the playoff picture, in 12th place.
It’s not until March 16, when St. Louis visits PPG Paints Arena, that the Penguins will see a Western Conference team.
That’s 18 points on the table, mainly against teams that are vying for the same postseason real estate the Penguins are.
They better win at least six of these nine games. And it wouldn’t hurt to get at least five of those wins in regulation, too, so as not to give points back to chief competitors.
If they can go 6-2-1 in this stretch, they’ll emerge with 85 points with 11 games remaining. Four of those remaining games (two each against the Rangers and Detroit) will be against teams with no hope at the postseason.
That should be good enough to make the playoffs.
Anything less than that, though, and the Penguins could be biting their fingernails all the way down to Game 82.