Tim Benz: Penguins embrace facing familiar Metro foes in playoffs
Regular-season homework for the Penguins is just about done. It’s almost time for final exams in the playoffs.
A few more Metropolitan Division term papers had to be written this week before the regular season ends, though.
One needs to be authored Thursday night in Columbus. The first, a 3-1 Easter Sunday loss to the Washington Capitals, didn’t grade well.
But professor Mike Sullivan doesn’t seem to think this additional research into potential future playoff opponents within the division is all that necessary.
“I don’t think we are going to learn anything new,” Sullivan said after the loss to the Capitals. “We play these guys so many times. We know exactly what they are. And they know what we are.”
The frequency of playing Metropolitan Division teams has served the Penguins well this year. They are 17-8-2 within the Metro. They are 10-4-1 against the four rivals from the division who will likely make the playoffs (Columbus, Washington, the New Jersey Devils and the Philadelphia Flyers).
“There is a lot of familiarity on both sides,” Sullivan continued. “Everybody knows what kind of game it’s going to be going in. It’s about getting to your game and trying to execute.”
Therefore it appears staying within the divisional bracket would clearly behoove the Penguins as opposed to being forced over to the Atlantic, where they have struggled against the three clubs they could still face on that side of the draw.
The Penguins are an unimpressive 3-6 in games against the Boston Bruins, Tampa Lightning, and Toronto Maple Leafs this year.
After a busy Tuesday night in the Metro, the idle Penguins went to bed tied in second place with Columbus (96 points apiece after Tuesday night’s comeback win vs. Detroit). New Jersey won, too. So the Devils currently stand alone in the top wild-card slot with 95 points. Philadelphia lost to the New York Islanders. So the Flyers are the last wild-card team as of now with 94 points.
Each team has two games remaining.
This isn’t just a conversation about familiarity over the course of this 2017-18 season. The Penguins have also eliminated Washington and Columbus a combined total of three times over the last two playoff campaigns.
According to the players in the locker room, that aforementioned regular-season research shows them that most of these teams have the same DNA going into the playoffs as they have had since October.
Or even going back to previous seasons.
After taking a quick survey of many of the Penguins after practice Tuesday, no one seemed to suggest that any of the other Metro Division contenders did, for instance, what their team did in 2016.
That’s when general manager Jim Rutherford reshaped the roster with multiple call-ups (Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust) and trade acquisitions (Carl Hagelin, Trevor Daley, Justin Schultz) based solely on the hope of beating teams with oppressive speed.
Take Columbus specifically. The Blue Jackets added the likes of Ian Cole, Mark Letestu, and Thomas Vanek. Have those acquisitions changed their overall approach to team hockey?
“No, not really,” Patric Hornqvist said. “They are role players, and they have a good team.”
“They are hard games (against Columbus). They really like to rim the puck and go on the forecheck. They forecheck so hard.”
So, yeah. That sounds familiar to last season’s first-round series.
What about Washington? Its goal scoring is off just a tick (3.10 goals per game — ninth in the league) from last season (3.18 — third in the league). Are they still attacking in the same fashion?
“Pretty much, yeah. Still look like the Caps,” Penguins goalie Matt Murray said after Washington’s win Sunday.
Washington’s biggest difference may be in goal if it decides to go with — and it should, based on what we saw Sunday — Philipp Grubauer instead of Braden Holtby.
“A lot of team rosters change over the summer and throughout the year,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But there’s more than enough guys that are still on those teams to have a reminder of those other playoff series.”
You can even make the argument that the Flyers and Devils — non-playoff teams a year ago — are continuing to do what they were trying to do last year. They are just doing it better with improved personnel.
“I don’t think at this particular point in the season there’s any team in the league that’s drastically trying to change the way they play,” Sullivan said Tuesday. “I think they are trying to refine the way they play.”
The thesis of professor Sullivan seems sound. His pupils are quoting the text book verbatim.
The last two seasons, these Penguins have ended the year as valedictorians. Starting next week, we’ll see if everyone else’s GPA in the Metro has caught up.
Or if the Pens are still head of the class.
Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM.