Pittsburgh Penguins Playoff Hopes in Question, Could Clinch on Tuesday


For the first time since Sidney Crosby‘s rookie season way back in 2005-06, the Pittsburgh Penguins may miss the playoffs.

Following a 2014-15 season that has seen the team put together some sizeable losing streaks, the Pens now find themselves in an Eastern conference Wild Card spot with three games remaining in the regular season.

Pittsburgh is hanging on by a thread at this point as the resurgent Ottawa Senators have salvaged their season and now sit just three points behind the Penguins, who currently have 95 points on the season.

The two teams’ records set up a pivotal match-up on Tuesday between Pittsburgh and Ottawa that could seal the fate of one or both clubs.

If Pittsburgh beats Ottawa in regulation, they’ll move to 97 points and will clinch a spot in the playoffs. If Ottawa wins, however, they’ll move to 94 points, just one back of Pittsburgh, with a good chance of taking over the Pens’ Wild Card spot before the season’s last game.

It’s a fairly shocking situation for the Pens to find themselves in. After finishing as the first or second seed in their division for the last eight seasons, Pittsburgh ranks fourth this time around.

An absurd amount of injuries played a central role in the fall – the Pens have been without all of their top-six forwards and all six of their starting defenseman at various points throughout the season – but the team has also dropped their fair share of contests when boasting a near healthy lineup as well.

For a team that boasts elite players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Marc-Andre Fleury, missing the playoffs would surely be considered a failure by the organization’s ownership group.

After an offseason that saw a complete overhaul of the Penguins roster, coaching staff, and management group, a playoff miss would raise serious questions not only in terms of whether another overhaul is needed, but also regarding the fact that the previous decisions made may not have been the correct ones.

Fingers have been pointed all around Pittsburgh as of late.

Some question the team’s stars for not putting up the numbers they have in the past (though Crosby and Malkin still both rank in the top 3 league-wide in terms of points-per-game).

Others have suggested that new General Manager Jim Rutherford has been a poor replacement for Ray Shero. Rutherford seems to have put together an excellent team on paper – one with more grit, more scoring punch, and more responsible defensive play – but the on-ice product has yet to fully reflect these projections.

New head coach Mike Johnston has also been labeled a culprit for the team’s subpar season.

After his predecessor Dan Bylsma led the Pens to a Stanley Cup in 2009 and a conference final in 2013, Johnston has seemingly guided the team astray this season as, even when boasting a lineup almost wholly healthy, the Pens have at times seemed less engaged than their opponents, making easily avoidable mistakes en route to disappointing losses.

The blame cannot be placed solely on any of these contributors, however.

Rather, the Pens have again suffered from the key injuries they’ve incurred and, most notably, from the timing of said injuries.

Unlike other clubs like the Columbus Blue Jackets, who sustained injuries early on and then picked up steam later in the season, the Pens were forced to deal with key losses throughout the entire 2014-15 campaign – even up until recently when they lost Kris Letang to a concussion – preventing them from fully finding their footing as a team and establishing their identity.

The results have been less than spectacular thus far, to say the least, but as the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings proved recently (winning the Cup as the eighth seed in the Western conference), one’s playoff position has little bearing on the success they can attain.

What the Penguins have seemed to lack most as of late is desperation.

They were hungry in 2008 when they went on their first extended postseason run of the Crosby era. They were hungry in 2009 after missing their chance at a championship, and they fought their way back to finish what they had started.

Pittsburgh may look down and out at the moment, but the playoffs are a completely different animal. If they can dig deep and find a reason to play with conviction, the opportunity to go on an extended playoff run is certainly still there.

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