The Penguins (45-24-11), nearing the end of the most surprising season in franchise history, have enjoyed a 43-point improvement since last season – the fifth-best turnaround in NHL history.
One more victory will give them the second highest-point total in franchise history, and more points than in either of the two seasons they won the Stanley Cup. It would be a remarkable accomplishment for a team that won only 22 games while finishing last in the Eastern Conference last season, also its fourth consecutive last-place finish in the Atlantic Division.
And talk about the March of the Penguins – they were 12-3-2 while playing 17 games in 31 days last month, ignoring the gruelling pace to enjoy the best March in their history.
But these youthful Penguins’ first late-season exposure to playoff-type hockey – a 4-1 loss Tuesday to Eastern Conference top-seeded Buffalo – was a major disappointment. It also illustrated what they still must do to win in April and, possibly, in May.
The Sabres played a trapping-style defence that neutralized the Penguins’ cast of scorers, giving them little room to manoeuvre or to create openings for Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin to get to the net. They also kept the Penguins scoreless on the power play (0-for-8) after they were 8-for-22 in their previous four games.
“Every time they had the puck, we collapsed hard and didn’t give them much room in the zone,” Daniel Briere said.
It was a major change in personality for Buffalo, the NHL’s highest-scoring team playing more like the New Jersey Devils, and it worked perfectly.
“It was a little tighter than normal,” said Crosby, the NHL scoring leader who went scoreless after having nine points in his previous four games. “There wasn’t a lot of play in the neutral zone. We had opportunities on the power play and we didn’t take advantage of them.”
The loss, only the third for Pittsburgh in regulation in its last 13 games, and New Jersey’s 2-1 shootout victory over Ottawa left the Penguins three points behind the Devils for the Atlantic Division title and the No. 2 seeding in the conference playoffs.
The only chance now for the Penguins to pass the Devils is to beat Ottawa on Thursday and the New York Rangers on Saturday, and for New Jersey to lose Thursday at Philadelphia and at home Saturday against the New York Islanders.
Pittsburgh also trails Ottawa by one point, and two victories, for fourth place in the conference and home ice in a first-round No. 4 vs. No. 5 playoff matchup. Even if the Penguins win in Ottawa, the Senators can assure themselves of finishing fourth by winning in Boston on Saturday.
If that happens, the Penguins may point to the Buffalo loss as being the reason they finished fifth rather than second in the conference – a major swing that might prevent them from having home ice in any round of the playoffs. Next week, it could mean they will return to Ottawa to start the playoffs rather than staying at home to begin play against the seventh-seeded team.
“We weren’t ourselves,” Jarkko Ruutu said. “The little things make the difference and they capitalized on those things.”
Mark Recchi, who scored his first goal in 21 games, and Ruutu said it was a game that should refocus the Penguins as the playoffs grow near.
“We play New Jersey (eight times), and they trap all the time,” Ruutu said. “We know how to break it. It’s going to be tougher in the playoffs. It will not be easy, and we have to be ready for it.”