Penguins in contention thanks to floundering division
While the Pittsburgh Penguins were busy playing objectively bad hockey for weeks-long stretches during the first two months of the season, one mitigating factor always at least partially could soothe the worries of everyone wearing black and gold.
The other teams in the Metropolitan Division haven’t exactly been covering themselves in glory, either.
Despite a mediocre 9-8-5 record, all it took for the Penguins to get right back into the thick of things in the division was a meager 2-0-2 streak. After a 4-2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday night, the Penguins are within three points of a playoff spot and six points of first place and they’ve played fewer games than all but two other Metropolitan teams.
“I think we’re fortunate that there’s a lot of teams that are having some ups and downs because of the old cliche that you can’t make the playoffs in November, but you can be out of it,” said defenseman Jack Johnson, playing for his second team in the division. “That’s the fortunate thing for us. But we need to get going as consistently as we can.”
Take a quick spin around the mediocre Metropolitan:
• The Washington Capitals have won five in a row to move into the division’s top spot, but they’ve been dealing with a doozy of a Stanley Cup hangover. When players learn the games that really count are played in the spring, it’s hard to get them to backcheck with vigor in the fall.
• The Columbus Blue Jackets haven’t been bad, on balance, but they’ve lost to Chicago, Arizona and Los Angeles and Artemi Panarin hasn’t scored in 12 games. They’ve given up more goals than the Penguins have.
• Remember when the New York Islanders beat the Penguins in back-to-back games a few weeks ago, and Barry Trotz had them back on track? They promptly dropped five of seven. Mathew Barzal is a wizard with the puck, but he has three goals and a minus-10 rating through 22 games.
• The New York Rangers are playing perfectly respectable hockey under new coach David Quinn, but they have one of the 10 lowest-scoring offenses in the league, and that’s only going to get worse when they sell to continue a multiyear rebuild.
• When the Carolina Hurricanes got off to a 4-0-1 start, it looked like the future was finally now. They went 2-8 in their next 10 games and have one of the five worst offenses in the league. They probably miss Jeff Skinner, who’s off to a tremendous start in Buffalo.
• A 3-0-1 western road trip got the Philadelphia Flyers feeling good about themselves for a little while, but the mood has faded fast. Their special teams are especially bad and goaltending — surprise — is a big problem.
• The New Jersey Devils have looked painfully average to start the season, losing nine of 11 at one point. Reigning league MVP Taylor Hall exploded for a two-goal game the last time the Penguins came to town, but otherwise, he has five goals in 20 games.
Add it all up and it might be enough for the Penguins to point and snicker at the struggles of their division rivals if it weren’t for one sobering fact: They’re 2-4-1 against Metropolitan teams this season.
If the Penguins are going to climb to the top of the standings, they’re obviously going to have to turn that trend around. It won’t be easy. It’s not like their rivals are likely to play worse as the season goes on.
“There are going to be teams that play well at certain points of the year and teams that play poorly at certain parts of the year,” winger Bryan Rust said. “Whether they start really hot or really cold doesn’t indicate where they’ll end up.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.