If the Penguins hope to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final for the third consecutive year, chances are that the road will go through New Jersey and Washington. And if the Penguins are going to win a game against either of those teams in a playoff series, they’ll have to accomplish that for the first time this season.
With a 6-3 loss to the Capitals Tuesday in Pittsburgh, the Penguins dropped that season series, 0-2-2. Coupled with their 0-6 record against the Devils this year, the Penguins would figure to be facing tough odds if they meet either of those teams in the rapidly-approaching postseason.
The Penguins, however, insist they’re still confident if that situation should arise.
“I think once the playoffs start, all that’s forgotten,” said center Jordan Staal. “That’s different hockey; things change. Hopefully we will meet those teams and get those wins.”
They’re not watching the standings too closely to size up possible opponents, either – if only because they fully expect to meet the best of the best at some point along the way.
“I don’t think you can get too caught up in that. If you start planning things, then you’re not worrying about winning games,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “And so much can happen. I remember Max [Talbot] called me last year and said we were playing New Jersey, and then Carolina scored two goals in a minute, so that changed pretty quickly.
“You’re going to play good teams in the playoffs no matter what, and whether you play them in the first round or third round, it doesn’t matter. You’ve still got to go through them; it’s a matter of getting there and hopefully getting home ice as much as you can. That’s really the goal.”
That goal isn’t looking quite as good for the Penguins, whose chances of winning the Atlantic Division took a hit with the loss to Washington. The Devils currently sit atop the division with 99 points, good for second place in the Eastern Conference; Pittsburgh is two points behind. Both teams have three games remaining.
Facing the Caps, the Penguins were in the hole before the contest even started, finding out during warmups that they’d be not only without forward Chris Kunitz, who suffered an elbow injury in Saturday’s contest against Atlanta, but also superstar Evgeni Malkin, who was reported to be ill. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was not at his best and was pulled after allowing his third goal of the night, but the players in front of him didn’t help much, committing plenty of unforced mistakes that ended up in the back of their net.
Pittsburgh found itself playing from behind from early on – not an easy situation against an offensively gifted club like Washington.
“It wasn’t exactly the start we wanted, and when you’re down to a team like that, it’s tough to battle back,” Staal said. “They’re not shy to keep scoring, too. It’s a tough battle against that team.”
Nor is it likely to get much easier in the Penguins’ final three games, even if they are against non-playoff teams Atlanta and the New York Islanders (twice). Pittsburgh learned that last week, when a demoralizing, 2-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning resulted in the players being summoned back to work at 7:30 a.m. the next day.
“Year after year, these [eliminated] teams battle,” Crosby said. “The Islanders are playing some good hockey, and they’ve knocked off a bunch of teams that were really desperate for points. The most important thing for us is to realize that our game needs to be at a certain level, and it doesn’t matter who we play, we’ve got to find that level.”
That’s something with which the Penguins continue to struggle, however. And time is running out if they still have hopes of finding it before they’re involved in a best-of-seven, elimination series.
“Our consistency and playing our game has been the story of our team,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “We have played well, we have won games, we know the statistics of our team in a lot of areas is pretty good. But we have not won against the Washingtons and Jerseys of the world, and that’s where we need to win that game and bring it at a high level against good teams. That will be the challenge for our team.”