Penguins’ Plight Not as Perplexing as Many Seem to Perceive

Recognition of their situation should pave the way to the playoffs.

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They were good enough, until they weren’t.

The world was ending, until it wasn’t.

Such was the breadth of the spastic over-reaction to the Penguins’ agonizing, come-from-ahead, overtime loss to the Flyers last Saturday in Philadelphia through their gritty, whatever-it-takes mastery of the Blue Jackets in Columbus on Tuesday. 

Even General Manager Jim Rutherford appeared conflicted by the swinging of the emotional pendulum in between.

He was speaking about trading a player who had been part of the problem (Tanner Pearson) for one who at first blush looks nothing like part of the solution (Erik Gudbranson).

While doing so, Rutherford declared the Penguins good enough to make a run for the Stanley Cup and, in the same breath, admitted to being “a little bit nervous” about whether or not they’ll make the playoffs.

I’m not so sure about the former, but there’s no reason to fret about that just yet.

As to the latter, the Penguins not qualifying for the postseason seems almost unimaginable, even given the tight juxtaposition of contenders in the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference, and the Penguins’ relatively patched-together state of late.

They’ll still have to earn their way in, but everyone finally appears on board with that absolute now that the number of games remaining has dwindled.

That scrap against the Blue Jackets on Tuesday provided a necessary refresher course as to what it’ll take the rest of the way.

The Blue Jackets had just loaded up with recognizable names at the trade deadline. Their volatile head coach, John Tortorella, had just reminded his team that the rival Penguins were a team that had “fed it to us a little bit” over the years. And the Penguins had just limped into Columbus without Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin and Olli Maatta.

Then they lost Bryan Rust and Chad Ruhwedel in succession as the game progressed.

That final again, Penguins 5, Blue Jackets 2.

Among the details that resonate:

  • Matt Murray remains as guilty of inconsistency as any of the Penguins, but perhaps he shouldn’t be judged by what takes place at the end of an outdoor game in the rain.
  • Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel are capable of recognizing the situation and responding with the appropriate engagement. “I thought Phil had a great game,” head coach Mike Sullivan insisted. “He played hard at both ends of the rink. He was on the puck. I thought he competed down low. I thought ‘Geno’ did the same.” Patric Hornqvist, like Kessel, didn’t score a goal but was present and heard from. The Pens are a different team when all of that happens.
  • The details associated with puck-management and playing the less risky, more efficient, north-south game Sullivan especially favors when the checking gets tight late in a season were, for the most part, respected, as was the every-shift effort and execution that’s a prerequisite when the stakes are raised. “It’s intense,” Jack Johnson acknowledged. “I think every game from here on out is going to have a similar, playoff-type atmosphere because points are so tight. I think from here on in it’s going to be intense.”

Understanding as much and responding as circumstances demand should be enough for these Penguins, in whatever configuration the lineup happens to be pieced together, to eventually outlast the Blue Jackets, Canadiens or Hurricanes.

Rutherford’s team needs only to finish ahead of one of those three, or so it appears, to reach the postseason.

That’s a perspective that ought to keep the pendulum centered the rest of the way.

Categories: Mike Prisuta’s Sports Section