Originally the paragraphs to follow were slated to comprise another glowing account of exactly what owner/captain/reigning Pittsburgh deity Mario Lemieux really means to the Pittsburgh Penguins. How confidencethat all-important, ever-elusive ingredient, essential to all championship caliber teamsis starting to swell in this team, and how, once again, Penguin fans should have a front row seat to the writing of hockey history. That was before the wheels came off.
Welcome back to Penguin hockey at its finest.
There they were, leading by a goal, late, in Philadelphia, with their seventh straight win all but packed in their travel bags. It was the continuation of the most dramatic hockey turnaround of the season, until the roof caved in. Maybe they knew how pathetic their winning percentage is in Philly (.174). Maybe they remembered that they're currently 18 points behind the Flyers in the standings with little chance of catching them. Whatever happened, the collapse wouldn't finally end until a night later after eight goals in barely four periods of play and at least one, if not three, precious points squandered in the standings.
Fat, drunk, and stupid may be no way to go through life, but giving up nine goals, losing two straight, and going into the All Star break with a whimper is nothing to be proud of either.
It's funny how quickly things can change, and sad how effortlessly it can all change right back again. Thankfully, or perhaps more appropriately, optimistically, there is still reason to suspect that this same squad can make the playoffs this season, and here's why.
First, the bad news. The Penguins are currently 10th in the conference, four points behind 8th place New Jersey. This won't punch a ticket to the dance, but it is more than an accurate depiction of the Penguins' play through their first 53 games.
Out of fifteen teams in the Eastern Conference, the Penguins rank 12th in goals scored and only five teams have a higher goals against average. It's even uglier versus the rest of the league where twenty-two teams allow fewer goals and the Penguins are tied for 23d in goals scored. It would be bad if the numbers simply stopped there, but they don't.
The Penguins' power play, worst in the league for most of the season, has recently climbed out of the cellar an entire spot and now sits 29th in the NHL. Of course, the Penguins are still tied for most shorthanded goals allowed (eight), but at this point, why quibble over the little things.
Fine, a grand total of five players on the team have a plus/minus rating in the black (lead by Robert Lang at a scintillating plus six), but do statistics really tell the whole story here?
The good news is, in many ways they do.
To this point in the season, the Penguins have been without three of their top guns for a combined 89 games (Kovalev, 13; Lemieux, 34; Straka, 42 and counting). Last season these three combined for 266 points. Now that Kovalev and Lemieux are backseemingly at full speed as Mario has notched 17 points in his last eight gamesthe Penguins' point production should increase dramatically. Beyond that, Johan Hedberg is 10th in wins league-wide with twenty, and over the Penguins' last ten games only conference-leading Philadelphia has a better record (6-3-0-1 vs. 6-2-1-1 respectively).
Also, even though the Penguinson averagegive up more goals than they score (2.38 vs. 2.81 per game), so, too, do the conference's 3d and 6th place teams, the Carolina Hurricanes and the New York Rangers, both of whom are currently in the playoff picture.
Moreover, the Penguins have at least one game in hand on five of the teams ahead of them in the standings. They are also 19-12-5-2 against the Eastern Conference, precisely the place they're going to have to make their stand, particularly in their first five games back after the All Star Game.
At the end of the break, the Penguins have a five game stretch in which they play Carolina, Montreal, New Jersey, the New York Rangers, and Ottawa. All of these teams are within eleven points of the Penguins and every point earned against these teams will be crucial if the Penguins intend to climb the playoff ladder.
Head Coach Rick Kehoe believes it will take 90 points to get into the playoffs, something history backs. Thus, with 52 points in 53 games, the Penguins need 38 points in their final 29 games to get into the profitable post-season. To secure these points, the Penguins must average over a point a game, something they haven't done on average this year. Yet, this is not an unthinkable prospect considering that Mario Lemieux only saw time in 35% of the team's first 53 contests.
Provided the Penguins play over .500, and can avoid ten or more losses in regulation the rest of the season, this team should control its own playoff destiny. After a start like the one they've had, it's tough to ask for much more from this team then that.
Can it be done? Certainly. Before the Penguins decided to commence their winter vacation a day and a half early, Pittsburgh was playing inspired hockey. If they can build from there, the Penguins will make up ground whether other teams fade or not. They'll also get the heart of their team back in the lineup when Martin Straka returns in a few weeks which should give this team serious help across the board.
However, it should be noted that the Penguins have exhausted their allotment of throw-away games. These efforts, especially at home, where the fans and the opposing team are the only two combatants to show up, can only continue if the Penguins have no urge to even sniff the post season. It's nice that Mario and Company know that their bread is buttered at home, and it's good to hear them make a lot of noise about how Mario will be healthy enough to play every home game. Still, the only thing worse than the Penguins losing at home is when they insist on laying down before the game even gets underway.
Should the Penguins be interested in really doing something for the fans, they could start by playing hard every time they get back to the Iglooa venue in which they're currently a non-threatening 13-12-2.
The numbers don't lie, and they paint a picture that alternates between utterly helpless and surprisingly hopeful, but the fact of the matter is that the Penguins have put themselves in a position to make the playoffs.
Whether they'll make it or not is hard to tell. The league doesn't keep statistical data on heart and desire.
Brother Karsh appears weekly at LGP.com and believes in this team. He also believes in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and free well drinks before 10:00 p.m. at the Whistling Whale on Tuesday nights. But that's really not important right now.