Tim Benz: Players say Penguins must ‘Embrace the Race’ to playoffs
So much for that sweep.
In advance of this weekend’s back-to-back home games for the Penguins, I wrote that skating away with two victories was important for the organization.
I wanted to see this 2018-19 Pens club — renowned for its sputtering inconsistency — to get on a roll akin to the one we saw last year.
I’m referencing an 11-1-1 stretch between games 50 and 63. Gathering 23 points in those 13 games went a long way toward 100 points for the season, and sliding into a playoff spot. That run installed just enough padding on a cut line that saw Florida on the outside looking in with 96.
Let’s remember that. That’s how close it can be. The Penguins were a mere five points between snuggling into the postseason as the second seed in the Metro Division and being out of the playoffs entirely.
Despite that torrid stretch from Jan. 23 to Feb. 23 of last year, Mike Sullivan’s crew didn’t clinch a playoff berth until Game 79 of the season.
But keep in mind that 2017-18 mid-winter surge was preceded by a solid five wins in seven tries and punctuated by four wins over five games after the hot streak was snapped.
The current edition of the Penguins has had no such luck with sustaining good play. Even its best stretch of eight consecutive wins from Dec. 19 to Jan. 4 is essentially outweighed by that brutal 1-9-1 span we saw between Oct. 30 and Nov. 19.
Last weekend served as a reminder that if the Penguins are to make the postseason for an amazing 13th straight season, they may have to sweat out every contest between now and Game 82 on April 6 to see if it actually happens.
That point wasn’t just driven home by the split results this weekend at PPG Paints Arena — a 5-4 loss to Calgary and a 6-5 win over the Rangers. How the games unfolded tell that story, too. The loss to the Flames was an erratic contest that saw a 1-1 first period, followed by a 4-1 Flames advantage in the second, and a wild Pens comeback in the third, only to fall one goal short.
The Rangers game saw the Pens blow leads of 1-0, 3-1, and almost 6-3 before securing victory.
Basically, the Saturday and Sunday affairs were a microcosm of the 59 games so far this season.
“Every team is good,” goalie Casey DeSmith said after beating the Rangers. “You don’t have any off-nights. It’s going to be tough to put together a really substantial streak.”
After the loss to the Flames, the Penguins were on the outside of the playoff bracket. NHL Public Relations statistics revealed that this was just the third time in the Sidney Crosby era that his team was out of the playoffs with 70 percent of the season gone. As for the other two times? They missed the playoffs in 2005-06. They won the Stanley Cup in 2008-09.
But I don’t see Sullivan getting fired and replaced by Dan Bylsma at this point, do you?
If you are looking for a positive, through 59 games last year, the Pens had 70 points. Through 59 games this year, these Pens have 69.
But last year’s group was knee deep in its runaway stretch of good play at this time as well. So, given this team’s inability to extend winning streaks very often, this is probably going to be a game-by-game grind in hopes of sliding in just above what could be a slightly lower playoff line of demarcation from a year ago.
“I believe we have what it takes,” Sullivan said of the postseason scramble. “We can’t be afraid of it. We have to be excited about it.”
Entering play Tuesday, the Penguins’ 69 points have them in the top wild-card spot by virtue of having one more ROW (regulation-overtime win) than the Canadiens do. Montreal also has 69 points and is in the final playoff spot, with Carolina closing in at 68.
Columbus was throttled 5-1 by Tampa last night. So they stayed stuck on 69 points as well. However, the Blue Jackets have two more victories than either of the other two clubs — and a game in hand. So they are in third place in the Metro.
“We’ve got to just embrace the race and get points,” said defenseman Brian Dumoulin.
“Embrace the race.” Sounds like a T-shirt idea in the Strip District to me, Dumo. Trademark that one ASAP.
Here’s another idea the Penguins should embrace: Beat all the struggling teams you face between now and the end of the season to get as many cheap points as you can.
You know, like, New Jersey. Tonight. The Devils are dead last in the Metro but have beaten the Penguins all three times they have played this season by a combined score of 15-6.
Embrace this opportunity. Squeeze hard. Turn a win into a two-game streak and go from there. Then maybe we’ll be talking about another NHL playoff run in Pittsburgh for certain.