Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (29) watches the puck go in the net on a shot by Ottawa Senators' Jean-Gabriel Pageau, not seen, during the second period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, April 7, 2015, in Ottawa, Ontario. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Justin Tang)
The playoffs aren’t a lost cause, not yet.
The Penguins still control their own destiny, and one win plus some help can punch their ticket to the playoffs, but it is nearly impossible to feel good about their chances. It isn’t just injuries that are cause for pessimism, it’s the way things seem incapable of going the team’s way at this point in time.
Needing only a regulation win to clinch a playoff spot, the Penguins and Sidney Crosby came out firing, with the captain scoring a goal 10 seconds into the game. After one period, the Pens were up 3-0, and the surging Ottawa Senators were neutered, their raucous crowd silenced.
It didn’t matter.
The Senators stormed back, gradually tilting the ice their way and eventually tying the game with under two minutes left, before winning it in overtime.
It would be surprising if it wasn’t such a common story by now. The Penguins get a lead, can’t hold it for a variety of reasons and falter in the end. They got a point, which keeps them ahead of Ottawa by one, and keeps the pressure on the Senators to keep winning, but pressure doesn’t seem to be a problem for a team that keeps finding ways to emerge victorious.
The Sens are a perfect foil for the Penguins. They’re a team that is playing loose, refusing to roll over in any game, regardless of situation, and one that keeps discovering new ways to succeed. The Pens, by contrast, can’t get out of their own way. Whether it’s an ill-advised penalty, like the one Daniel Winnik took on Sunday, letting the Flyers back into the game, or a simple inability to win a faceoff when it counts, which is how Ottawa tied the game. Pittsburgh simply can’t get it done.
Injuries have gutted the Penguins, to be sure. When Crosby and Evgeni Malkin play, the team wins, and wins at an impressive clip. When one or both players are missing, they bear more resemblance to a lottery contender than anything else. Losing Kris Letang and Christian Ehrhoff has been extraordinarily taxing as well.
Injuries are a big part of what has gone wrong, but they aren’t the whole story. This team still has no depth at winger. Additions like Blake Comeau and David Perron have fizzled out after strong starts with the team. Perron in particular has fallen off the map after a promising debut. Winnik has been flat out bad, and the Pens still look for all the world like a two-line team.
The defense corps, while gutted by injury, hasn’t acquitted itself well at all. Ian Cole is playing well, but Paul Martin, Ben Lovejoy, Derrick Pouliot and Rob Scuderi have all been varying degrees of awful. Some of that can be chalked up to the fact that most of those players are miscast for their roles, but it’s not unreasonable to assume that athletes can play above their heads for a few days or a week, when the situation is desperate.
What’s more, they are playing stupid. Winnik’s penalty on Sunday was a classic example of that. Any casual observer could have looked at the stats, looked at the Flyers’ history of trying to get under the Penguins’ collective skins, and theorized that the best plan of attack for Pittsburgh was to play controlled, smart hockey, keep the Flyers from getting to their lethal power play, and skate out of Philadelphia with a win.
The Pens took that tack, and dominated the course of play early, took a 1-0 lead, only to watch Winnik blow it all up for no good reason. It is at least a style of hockey that is easily described; frustratingly selfish and moronic beyond belief.
There remains a chance that this team makes the playoffs. Other teams have to keep on winning, and there is no guarantee that that will happen. The Penguins can still win their last two and render everything else completely moot. Even with the reeling Islanders and awful Sabres left on the schedule, it is difficult to imagine this team seizing control of the situation.
Think about this: The Pens’ season could come down to their 82nd game, against Buffalo. A team that can’t win versus a team that is doing everything short of actively trying not to. It would seem to be a situation tailor-made for success.
After watching these Penguins snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and teeter ever closer to the brink of total collapse, it’s hard to imagine them winning that game, or any other.
Chris Mueller is the co-host of “The Starkey & Mueller Show” from 2-6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 The Fan.
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