Penguins set to face make-or-break stretch

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons | Penguins backup goaltender Casey DeSmith, who’s been thrust into starting duties multiple times due to injuries to starter Tristan Jarry, has performed inconsistently during his time in net.

Russell Macias | Staff Writer

Feb. 2, 2023

Welcome to February, Pittsburgh. The Pirates are just about ready to begin their migration to Bradenton, Fla., for spring training, and the Steelers haven’t played a game in almost a month.

The focus in Pittsburgh sports, for now, is the Penguins. Those Penguins, whose most-recent game was a 6-4 home loss to the San Jose Sharks on Saturday, are now in the midst of a nine-day break that will last until Pittsburgh hosts the Colorado Avalanche at PPG Paints Arena on Tuesday.

The Penguins netted 13 of a possible 26 points in January by going 5-5-3, all while maintaining their spot as the final playoff team in the Eastern Conference. Pittsburgh (57 points) is 3 points behind the Washington Capitals (60 points) with four games in-hand.

Aside from the lowly Sharks (41 points), who did the Penguins lose to? In regulation, they fell to the Boston Bruins (83 points), the Vegas Golden Knights (62 points), the Winnipeg Jets (65 points), and the division-rival Carolina Hurricanes (76 points). Those are all upper-tier NHL opponents, and ones you could forgive the Penguins for losing to.

But that isn’t the whole story with this Penguins team.

If you add in the last three games in December played following the Christmas break, they dropped all three, including two in regulation to the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils.

Realistically, the Penguins should not be in a playoff spot. They don’t look like a playoff team.

They beat bad teams in back-and-forth, high-scoring affairs, like winning a 5-4 contest against the Vancouver Canucks in which they trailed 3-0 and a 7-6 shootout against the hot-and-cold Florida Panthers. While the Pens can be commended for finding ways to win, it doesn’t feel sustainable.

Starting goaltender Tristan Jarry cannot stay healthy, and Casey DeSmith has proven wholly unreliable. Third-line center Jeff Carter has fallen into the abyss, a victim of father time. Joining him in the doldrums of mediocrity is longtime defensive stalwart Brian Dumoulin. Teddy Blueger, while not known for his offense, has just two assists and no goals in 23 games. The depth has evaporated, and it has put the responsibility of scoring onto the top two lines, which have been able to do the heavy lifting.

Now at the NHL All-Star Break, the Penguins are at a crossroads. They have to keep plugging away, and hope the depth starts to succeed again, but frustration is mounting. The only things that have saved the Penguins have been a massive losing streak from the Buffalo Sabres that prevented them from leapfrogging Pittsburgh, along with the Islanders going through a stretch of winning just one time in 11 games.

However, the Islanders won their final two games before the break and swung a trade with the Vancouver Canucks on Monday, acquiring coveted forward Bo Horvat.

The Penguins come out of the break with a chance to rack up some points. After the contest with Colorado, they’ll head to California for three games against the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings and Sharks. Once they return to the East Coast, they’ll have a stretch of three games in four days against the Islanders (twice) and Devils.

If the Penguins come out of this break playing the same way, and they lose more than one of those first four games, general manager Ron Hextall must make a trade.

The Penguins have three consecutive two-day gaps between games in the month of February, and then after that, they only have two of those gaps left in the season.

The rubber will meet the road one way or another, and a 16-year playoff streak hangs in the balance. In March, Pittsburgh will play a grueling stretch of 10 games in 17 days, while overall playing 15 games in the 31-day month. The time is now to make a move if the Penguins keep playing with such inconsistency and relying almost solely on the top-six forwards. Otherwise, it’s pretty clear that things could go south very quickly.

Looking at the rest of the schedule, Pittsburgh has three games left against each of the Rangers and Islanders, along with two against the Devils and the Tampa Bay Lightning. In a schedule backloaded with many games against high-caliber, Eastern Conference opponents, the Columbus Blue Jackets are the only team that is out of the playoff hunt that the Penguins will play more than once.

The schedule isn’t easy, but there’s a path to success.

After the California road trip ends, that’s where the team will make its luck and fall on one side of the playoff bounce.