Key Observations Heading Into Game 80 Between the Penguins and Senators

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By: Andy Hughes (@PensNation_Andy)

With three more games left in their regular season schedule, the Pittsburgh Penguins (42-26-11) still have not clinched a playoff spot.

Wait, what?! Yes, it’s true. The Penguins could miss the postseason this year, which would be one of the biggest collapses this city has seen in a while. For Pittsburgh, the playoffs start tonight with a crucial match against the Ottawa Senators (40-26-13), who are two points behind the Penguins. Since the Penguins’ magic number is down to four, a regulation win tonight against the team that is chasing them would secure their ninth straight postseason berth. It’s amazing how quickly the Penguins went from division contenders to a team trying to chase a playoff spot. It’s not what we’re used to in Pittsburgh, but it’s not necessarily something that I mind that much. Make this team work and earn things. The last few seasons, this team walked through the regular season and had a big ego. That did nothing for them in the playoffs. Maybe if they actually earn something, they’ll have a better work ethic in the postseason.

Pittsburgh had a very forgettable weekend as they lost to Columbus and Philadelphia, two teams who won’t make the playoffs. The Penguins probably deserved better than a 4-1 loss to the Flyers, but this is a league that counts on results, not numbers. I liked the way Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patric Hornqvist and Marc-Andre Fleury have played lately, but that’s about it. With four goals in his last eight games, maybe throw Brandon Sutter in that mix, but everyone else needs to step up their game. With Malkin back in the lineup, Pittsburgh now has to wait on Kris Letang and Christian Ehrhoff, who are still out with upper-body injuries. Letang may ride a stationary bike this week, according to Mike Johnston while Ehrhoff will continue to skate with Mike Kadar. That’s not a surprise with Letang, but I’m pretty sure the Penguins thought Ehrhoff would be back by now, but that return date keeps getting pushed back.

With Letang and Ehrhoff out, every other player needs to play better in both zones. What has happened to David Perron, Blake Comeau, Beau Bennett and Chris Kunitz? Every single one of those players has been extremely disappointing of late, especially Perron. After lighting it up immediately following the trade to Pittsburgh, Perron has registered only 1 assist in his last 9 games while playing with the league’s leading scorer in Crosby. In addition, he’s been turning the puck over and hasn’t been able to receive passes cleanly. In 7 of his last 9 games, Perron has been a minus. The Penguins need Perron to contribute more offensively in order to have any chance of making a playoff run assuming they even make the postseason. Comeau surprised a ton of people this year, no doubt. But I think management should have made a better attempt to bring in another top-six forward to push Comeau down. It’s pretty clear he is not a top-six guy. He’s a great player to have, but I think he’s a better fit on the third line. Kunitz has been awful too of late, only notching 1 goal in his last 15 games. That’s it. No assists, either. That contract that Ray Shero signed him to does not look too good right now. And do I need to say anything more about Bennett? I know he’s been playing on the fourth line of late, but no goals since January 20th is inexcusable for a former first-round pick. It’s pretty clear Pittsburgh needs guys to step up. It’s tough because if those second-tier players cannot contribute, we all know guys like Craig Adams and Maxim Lapierre aren’t going to give the team much offensively. The Penguins have also struggled to get goals from their blue line. Add that all up and you get a terrible shooting percentage, which leads to a bad winning percentage.

Jim Rutherford and the other general managers have taken some heat lately as a result of the Penguins’ salary cap situation too. It is pretty embarrassing, but it’s not something that’s never happened before. Sure, Pittsburgh probably spent too much money on a guy like Nick Spaling, but Shero’s previous contracts with Kunitz and Rob Scuderi are really catching up with them. One logical move to clear cap space would have been to waive Adams, but that did not happen. I do think the Penguins have a deeper team this year than they did last year, but they just haven’t been able to put it all together yet. Obviously, they’re running out of time. It has been so strange to see Pittsburgh go from an offensive powerhouse to a team who cannot score. They better figure it out soon or the fans in Pittsburgh will have another frustrating spring.

Enough about the Penguins. This game is probably even more important for the Senators, who will likely be out of the playoff picture if they lose in regulation tonight. They’ve been one of the hottest teams in the league in the past month and have basically come out of nowhere into the playoff race. They’re 6-2-2 in their last 10 games and have been red hot since the beginning of March. One of the big reasons for Ottawa’s recent success is 27-year-old goaltender Andrew Hammond, also known as “The Hamburglar.” Since his season debut on February 16th, Hammond has recorded a 17-1-2 record along with a 1.86 goals-against average. He was just named the NHL’s First Star of the Week ending April 6th after going 3-0-1 with a 1.63 goals-against average. Hammond is expected to play tonight against the Penguins’ Marc-Andre Fleury. In addition to Hammond, 22-year-old Mark Stone has been incredible in the second half of the season. In his last 10 games, Stone has recorded 4 goals and 9 assists. Since January 1st, Stone’s 42 points is the fifth most in the NHL. Stone and Hammond deserve a lot of credit for getting the Senators back in the race, but let’s not forget about captain Erik Karlsson, who leads the team in points with 65 (21 goals and 44 assists). With Letang out of the lineup, Karlsson is becoming a favorite to win another Norris Trophy. The Senators have also gotten some good numbers from Kyle Turris, Bobby Ryan and Mike Hoffman. Even if Ottawa loses tonight, the Senators should hold their heads high. No one saw them possibly overtaking the Penguins when Paul MacLean was fired earlier this year.

Many people will talk about different story lines about tonight’ game, but it’s pretty simple for the Penguins. Win in regulation and you’re in. Can Pittsburgh handle the pressure? This will be a great test for this team. I can’t even tell you how many people always tell me “The regular season doesn’t matter. The big test will be in the playoffs.” Yeah, I think the regular season matters now. Enjoy the game, everyone!