Brandt Frye The Hockey Writers
Penguins Approaching Critical Stretch of Season
The Pittsburgh Penguins currently hold a 31-14-5 record, good for 67 points and second place in the NHL’s fierce Metropolitan Division. Considering the almost unfathomable amount of injuries the team has sustained to this point, especially to key players, the Penguins are in fantastic shape coming out of the All-Star break.
With that being said, the Penguins players and fans know the season’s final stretch is no time to let off the gas. Pittsburgh’s last two months are daunting, and they’ll need to play their very best hockey just to clinch a playoff spot, let alone the Metropolitan.
Penguins Face Brutal Remaining Schedule
The Penguins have played 50 games so far this season, and 28 of the remaining 32 are against Eastern Conference opponents. Pittsburgh trails the Washington Capitals by just four points in the standings and has four head-to-head matchups with the Capitals before the regular season ends on April 4.
Of those 28 conference games, 17 of them are against Metropolitan Division rivals. The other 11 are against the Atlantic Division, against which the Penguins hold just a 6-7 mark. Pittsburgh will get a chance to exact revenge immediately following the All-Star break, as they’ll take on the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs twice each in the month of February.
Following Friday’s game in Philadelphia, the Penguins play four consecutive games (at Washington, at Tampa Bay, at Florida Panthers, vs. Tampa Bay) against teams currently on pace for a playoff spot. The Flyers are sitting at 60 points, just one point behind the Carolina Hurricanes for the final Eastern Conference wild card spot. (from ‘Recharged Penguins gear down for grueling stretch,’ Trib Live, 01/30/2020)
The schedule eases up a bit before a Feb. 23 road game in Washington, followed by a quick road trip out west, during which the Penguins will play three games in four days to round out the month of February. In March, the Penguins will play the Capitals twice and the Hurricanes four times. The remainder of the month appears relatively mediocre.
Recent Roster Moves, Injury News Set Tone for Stretch Run
The Penguins displayed their faith in young defenseman Marcus Pettersson on Tuesday, giving the 23-year-old a five-year extension worth just north of $4 million. Pettersson has been a constant for Pittsburgh all year, totaling 15 points and appearing in all 50 games. He is the only defenseman on the team who hasn’t missed a game yet.
Justin Schultz is expected to return Friday after missing the majority of the past two months with a lower-body injury. (from ‘Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz closing in on return,’ Trib Live, 01/30/2020) Schultz has played in just 27 games this season, and 56 in the last two seasons combined. How Sullivan will choose to utilize Schultz against the Flyers remains to be seen. Prior to his injury, Schultz was often placed on the second or third defensive pairing alongside Pettersson or Jack Johnson.
Forward Dominik Kahun didn’t practice Thursday but did some individual skating and looks to be nearing a return from a concussion injury suffered on Jan. 19. Kahun’s presence could help boost the bottom six forwards, a group that has been starved for firepower all season. Kahun has 27 points in 48 games so far this year.
With Kahun and fellow forward Nick Bjugstad still sidelined, AHL forwards Andrew Agozzino and Anthony Angello were called up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Agozzino has appeared in just nine games this season, and Angello will make his NHL debut on Friday.
Potential Trades Still Looming
Penguins fans are anxiously waiting for general manager Jim Rutherford to make a move, whether it be for a winger or a defenseman. While it’s abundantly clear that no matter what the Penguins choose to do at the deadline, shoring up the left side of this roster will be the priority for Rutherford. The NHL Trade Deadline isn’t until Feb. 24 at 3 p.m., so in the meantime, the Penguins will need to focus on winning with the roster as currently constructed.
Ideally, the Pens would choose to solve their left-wing issue without making a trade. Alex Galchenyuk, an offseason acquisition brought over in the trade that sent Phil Kessel to Arizona, has fallen well short of expectations thus far. Galchenyuk is primarily been operating on the fourth line this season, alongside a revolving door at both center and right wing.
That revolving door will now feature forwards Agozzino and Angello, who almost certainly will work on the bottom line and see as little playing time as possible.
While the majority of the Penguins’ best trade assets are prospects, the very best chip on the table is goaltender Matt Murray. After the magical 2017 Stanley Cup season, the Penguins would be foolish to move him, but the idea can’t be entirely ruled out. Pittsburgh currently boasts the best one-two goalie punch in the entire league, and that’s only to the team’s benefit moving towards the postseason.
Starting netminder Tristan Jarry has enjoyed a breakout season to this point, rolling to a 16-8-1 record and leading the NHL with a .929 save percentage (SV%). Jarry’s success isn’t an accident, as the Penguins spent a 2013 second-round pick on him and he dominated the minors with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Still, it’s just a little over half a season of work, and he’s far from an assumed playoff performer. With a laundry list of difficult games over the season’s final stretch, Pittsburgh will need both Jarry and Murray if they plan to win another Stanley Cup.
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