Morning Skate: Where will the Pittsburgh Penguins finish in the East?
Greg Wyshynski: The Penguins are roaring toward the top spot in the Metropolitan Division, currently occupied by their punching bag … er, old friends, the Washington Capitals, who own a 32-17-6 record (70 points). The Penguins are 31-22-4 (66 points) after going on a 7-2-1 tear.
So how high can they climb? Well, if coffee is for closers, pour the Penguins a venti double. They are a combined 36-15-5 over the past two seasons from Feb. 14 through the end of the season. For his career, Sidney Crosby has a points-per-game average of 1.36 in March and April, which is higher than his career average (1.30).
Yet despite their stellar play late in the season, the Penguins have finished second in the Metro in consecutive years. Finishing first? The Capitals, who have frankly perfected the art of the division championship during the Ovechkin Era with seven first-place finishes in 12 seasons.
So we’ll go ahead and say it happens again: The Capitals take the division with around 105 points, with the Penguins finishing a close second. They both dispatch their first-round opponents, and we get Washington vs. Pittsburgh for the third consecutive season in the second round — and if the Capitals lose again, we fully expect Barry Trotz to grab a torch and storm the gates of NHL headquarters as a one-man army, demanding a playoff format change.
Emily Kaplan: Right around Thanksgiving, we were asking ourselves what was wrong with the Penguins, and what was the next move they needed to make to push themselves back to respectability. Things have certainly changed in two and a half months. I feel a bit silly for doubting the Penguins — who, I should note, I picked as my early Stanley Cup favorite. A rough start may have been the manifestation of back-to-back grueling seasons and significant personnel losses, but the Penguins have refound their footing in a big way.
One of the biggest issues with Pittsburgh to start the season was its poor starts. As I wrote on Nov. 29, the Penguins had “allowed 30 first-period goals, which is the worst mark in the league. They’ve scored only 20 goals in the first period themselves (which is 20th in the league), and that minus-10 differential is an ugly indicator of why they’re 13-10-3 and in fifth place in the Metropolitan Division.”
Well that was just a sample size of 26 games. In the 31 games since then, Pittsburgh has been off to a much better start, outscoring opponents 25-19 in the opening frame. One thing the Penguins haven’t solved is their season-long search for depth at center. I think that’s something GM Jim Rutherford will address at the trade deadline. It might not be with a big, splashy name — because really, there aren’t many top-end centers available — but the Penguins should find someone to plug in on the bottom two lines. Of course, Pittsburgh is also in on a rental winger — as long as he comes in at the right price.
All of this is to say, the Penguins are in much better shape than they were to start the season. Their power play is downright scary (currently first in the league, at 26.3 percent), both Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel are Art Ross Trophy candidates — and as Greg notes, Crosby tends to play his best hockey late in the season. The Penguins are trending up. They’re in second place in the Metropolitan now, and despite the lump of teams still competing for a playoff spot behind them, I don’t see them finishing any lower than that.
Chris Peters: What a wild year, but you had to figure the Penguins weren’t going to be sliding all the way out of the playoffs. There’s just too much talent at the top of their lineup, and it’s been the top guys getting the job done as usual as the Penguins surge into playoff position.
Since the calendar turned to 2018, Pittsburgh’s primary stars have been unstoppable. Malkin has 16 goals and 27 points in his past 17 games. Crosby has 22 assists and 27 points in the same span. Kessel, who arguably has been the Pens’ most consistent forward throughout the season, has 23 points in that span. Meanwhile, the goaltending has improved, even though it has been a by-committee approach. Matt Murray, who has dealt with injuries and the recent death of his father, has seen an uptick in performance when he has been available, with a .918 save percentage since Jan. 1. Meanwhile, Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith have also each made starts in recent weeks. The goaltending part is key because we’ve seen how this team looks when Murray struggles — and it isn’t good. Keeping him healthy and in the right mindset is key to this team’s hopes.
Looking at Pittsburgh’s schedule the rest of the way, there are quite a few games against teams that are still in the playoff hunt and fighting for spots — and only a handful or so against teams just playing out the string. With the Philadelphia Flyers gaining on them, I think the worst the Pens will do is the third spot in the Metro. The most likely position, however is that second spot and home-ice advantage in a first-round matchup.