Slumping Pittsburgh Penguins still likely to make NHL playoffs, and make early exit.
Judging by that “You can't beat us!” chant that rang out from the Wells Fargo Center stands on Sunday afternoon, the fans in Philadelphia are really enjoying Pittsburgh’s late-season swoon.
They don't mind it in Edmonton, either.
The Oilers, you'll recall, own Pittsburgh’s first-round selection in this year’s draft by virtue of the January trade that sent David Perron east. At the time, it seemed like a nice asset for a rebuilding organization, a pick that might end up somewhere in the low-mid 20s and earn the Oilers a solid B+ prospect. Now, though, with the Penguins on the verge of missing the playoffs, there’s a chance it becomes a lottery selection ... one that conceivably could land Connor McDavid.
Can you imagine? The infamous Tom Kurvers for the-pick-that-turned-into-Scott Niedermayer deal might not look so bad by comparison.
But as thrilling as that possibility is to Edmonton’s long-suffering fans, here’s the reality of the situation: the Pens simply need to beat Ottawa on Tuesday night in regulation to clinch a spot. Lose that game and they still only have to match the Senators the rest of the way since they own the first tie-breaker (regulation and overtime wins). And Pittsburgh’s opponent in the season finale is the Sabres, a team that’s likely to dress neighborhood kids if it hasn’t yet secured its grasp on 30th place in the standings and being guaranteed no worse than the second pick (Jack Eichel) in the draft.
And so, as perilous as their grip on the postseason appears to be after going 3-6-1 in their past 10 games, the Pens still have a 93.5% chance of making the cut according to Sportclubstats.com.
Yet there’s also this reality: The Penguins are every bit as bad as their recent record suggests. It all starts with their lack of discipline. No team has been penalized more often this season than Pittsburgh, a trend that caught up to the Pens on Sunday when the Flyers went three-for-four on the power play in their 4–1 victory.
And then there’s the offense. Despite dressing the league’s leading scorer, Sidney Crosby, the Pens sure have trouble lighting the lamp. Since March 1, this team has played 18 games. In nine of them they were held to a single goal or less. Their shooting percentage over that stretch is a miserable 6.3%, a level of ineptitude topped only by the Coyotes. Take away the power play and it drops to just 5.1%. And that doesn’t even take into consideration all the posts that have been rung by shots or the open nets the Penguins have missed. There had to be half a dozen of those on Sunday alone, evidence that the magic is gone from Pittsburgh’s wands.
There are concerns about goaltending with the Pens’ even-strength save percentage at 91.7%, which ranks 23rd in the league. And that looks positively stout next to their PDO, a stat that proxies puck luck by adding shooting percentage and save percentage at even strength. The Pens are at 96.8, better than only Edmonton.
Injuries have played a part in their struggles, sure. Evgeni Malkin, who returned to action on Sunday against the Flyers, has missed 13 games while dealing with a series of them. The defense, limited to just five bodies for a few contests by an assortment of dents, dings and the cap crunch, still doesn’t have top-four stalwarts Kris Letang and Christian Ehrhoff in the lineup.
And despite his chart-topping totals and relatively good health, Crosby hasn’t quite been himself this season.
But don’t point fingers at the superstars when the Pens falls short. Blame the management teams that saddled them with sub-par support.
Take a look at this tweet from beat writer Josh Yohe to see how little the secondary forwards have brought to the table in recent weeks:
Adams 0 goals in 59 games; Lapierre 0 in 31; Bennett 0 in 29; Spaling 0 in 22; Kunitz 1 in 17; Comeau 1 in 14. That's 1/2 of their forwards.— Josh Yohe (@JoshYohe_PGH) April 5, 2015
If Yohe hadn't run out of characters, he might also have mentioned that Perron is mired in a nine-game drought and has just three goals in his past 24 games, despite skating most of his minutes on Crosby’s line.
Meanwhile the Senators have ridden the unexpected goaltending of Andrew Hammond and rookie sensations Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman, whittling away at a deficit that was 15 points on March 12 until it was down to two.
So here’s where we’re at: With their lives on the line, tomorrow night’s game in Ottawa is essentially the opener of the playoffs for the Penguins.
And they don’t look ready.