As the Pittsburgh Pirates look forward to their home opener Monday, their hockey counterparts are down to their final out.
The Pittsburgh Penguins couldn’t hold a 3-0 lead Tuesday in a 4-3 overtime loss at Ottawa, then couldn’t solve a sharp Jaroslav Halak in a 38-shot, 4-1 loss Friday against the New York Islanders.
Now on a season-worst five-game losing streak, the Penguins head to Buffalo Saturday to take on the league’s last-place team. For the third consecutive game, a win would lock up a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs. With another loss, Pittsburgh’s fate depends on how the Boston Bruins fare in Tampa Bay in a game that starts a half-hour later.
The good news for the Penguins is that the Lightning, fighting the Montreal Canadiens for first place in the Atlantic Division, still have something to play for. The bad news is that the Sabres, after clinching No. 30 overall with a loss in Columbus Friday night, have already secured the best shot at winning the Connor McDavid sweepstakes in next week’s draft lottery, so have no reason not to put forth their best effort at playing spoiler in front of the Buffalo fanbase.
How did it come to this for a team that boasts superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, both in the discussion as the best player in the world?
It’s been a combination of an inability to score, and an inability to keep the pressure on when they do; mounting injuries, with rookie defenseman Derrick Pouliot, hurt Tuesday in Ottawa, now part of that list; and a go-for-it philosophy at the trade deadline that took the Penguins right to the brink of the NHL’s salary cap, preventing them from calling up a defenseman to help their cause.
Pittsburgh’s failure to play buzzer-to-buzzer has played a role in sacrificing enough multi-goal leads over the past month that, had they held on to win even half, their place in the postseason would be assured. They’ve also failed to come back to win at any point this season when they’ve been behind going into the third period.
Those trends seem tough to reverse, however, when the salary-cap situation has saddled five healthy blueliners with an exhausting number of minutes too many times over the past few weeks. It’s also tough to execute the Penguins’ system when some of their most capable defensemen on the transition – Kris Letang, Christian Ehrhoff and Pouliot – are unavailable, Letang for the remainder of the year after being concussed by Arizona captain Shane Doan on March 28.
“You’ve got to get results,” said head coach Mike Johnston. “Again [Friday], early in the game, we were just textbook. We grabbed the momentum at the end of the second [period] and then in the third, when they scored three or four minutes in, we were back to defending a little bit and we weren’t pressing enough.”
The Penguins’ sole, unlikely goal scorer Friday also pointed to coming up short in the only measure of the team’s play that ultimately matters.
“I think we’re fragile when it comes to [getting] the result,” said defenseman Rob Scuderi, whose second-period tally was his first in 181 games. “I know it sounds like a broken record, but I felt we deserved better. So, it’s going to come down to [game] 82; that’s the way it is. We’ve got to make the best of it.”
Finding some offense – the Penguins have gotten just one goal in three of the five-game losing streak – would be a start.
“I look at the last two games in particular – those are big games, big moments,” Johnston said. “How did our players rise up to the occasion? We didn’t get the results. I look at [those] games and we’ve played, you could say, four out of six really good periods, and we just didn’t score [Friday] on our opportunities. We should be scoring more than we are right now.”
“Sometimes it happens,” Malkin said. “No confidence, a couple injuries to guys, power play not great. We play 81 games, it’s a long season, but [Saturday] it’s the whole season. The whole team understands we need to play like game seven.”
Problem is, game sevens bring a lot of pressure, something under which the Penguins have not exactly thrived of late.
“Getting frustrated isn’t going to help it,” Crosby said. “I think you just keep working hard, keep battling. We were all around the net [Friday] generating some good chances, lot of pucks at the net, competing hard in the corners. You know the things you need to do to generate goals. We believe in the way we play, and we’ve just got to trust that … we’re going to get some bounces.”
“You just have to try to relax,” Scuderi said. “I know it’s a high-pressure situation, but you’re not going to help anything by bringing more anxiety to it. You’ve got to try to relax, stay loose and let your play do the talking. If it doesn’t, at least you put your best food forward.”
At least one, first-year Penguin – and a bright spot in a disappointing season – is looking forward to it.
“That’s why we play 82 games, to see who’s the best teams after that,” said forward Patric Hornqvist. “[Saturday’s] a hell of a game; I think everybody’s excited. It’s live or die. Can’t wait.”