After going 15-2-3 in their last 20 games, the Penguins are still not assured of a playoff berth. With just 5-games left to play, the Penguins could still finish the season as high as 3rd place or as low as 10th place in the East. This uncertainty underscores the importance of this weekend for the Penguins who hit the road against the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday night and the Florida Panthers on Sunday night. A regulation win against both teams would clinch a playoff spot for the surging Penguins, but don’t expect it to be easy. First, the Penguins will play their first road game since March 12th after an extended 8-game home stretch in which they went 6-1-1. Second, they will be playing their first back-to-back games since March 14/15, and they have yet to win both when playing back-to-back games this season. Third, they will be playing against two fierce competitors in the Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers. The Hurricanes are tied with the Penguins for the best record in the NHL over the last 10-games, and are riding a 7-game winning streak. The Florida Panthers, while not as successful over their last 10-games, are sitting 2-points out of a playoff position and are fighting for their lives.
Tonight’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes promises to be one of the best matchups of the season, as two of the hottest teams in the NHL face-off in what will undoubetdly be an intense, playoff style environment. In addition to winning their season’s best 7-straight games, the Hurricanes are also sitting on a franchise record 10-straight home wins; two streaks that the Penguins hope to bring to an end. The Pittsburgh Penguins (42-27-8/92-points) and the Carolina Hurricanes (43-28-7/93-points) are very closely matched and have a lot in common. The Hurricanes have only lost 1-game in regulation over their last 14-games played, while the Penguins have only lost 1-game in regulation over their last 16-games. Over the last 20-games, the Hurricanes have gone 15-3-2, while the Penguins have gone 15-2-3. Both teams also made a coaching change midway through the season, as the Canes fired Peter Laviolette and replaced him with Paul Maurice. As far as offense goes, the Penguins are 7th in the league with 3.1 goals per game, while the Canes at 16th have averaged 2.83. Defensively, the Canes are 10th with 2.7 goals against per game while the Penguins are 16th with 2.86 goals against. The Penguins’ improving powerplay should look to take advantage of the Carolina penalty kill which ranks in the bottom third of the league, however, the Hurricanes are one of the least penalized teams at home. All in all, I look for this to be one of the most consequential and exciting games of the season for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
On Sunday, the Penguins will match up against the rested Florida Panthers less than 20-hours after they finish their game against the Hurricanes. The Panthers, coming off from a 3-1 loss against the Atlanta Thrashers on Friday night, are currently sitting 2-points out of a playoff position with just 4-games remaining in their season. The Panthers will be highly motivated to pick up 2-points to keep their playoff hopes alive and will be looking to take advantage of a likely tired Penguins team. While the Panthers have given up the most shots of any team in the league, their goaltending has been outstanding. Tomas Vokoun ranks 2nd in the league behind Tim Thomas with a 0.925 save percentage, while his backup Craig Anderson is 3rd with a 0.924 save percentage. Offensively, the Panthers are a middle of the pack team in terms of goals scored. Look for a desperate game from the Florida Panthers, which could result in more scoring opportunities for the Penguins.
There’s no doubt about the critical importance of this road trip. With just 5-games remaining in the season, the Penguins need to look at “the next game” as the most important one of their season. That’s how they approached the 5-game, 5-win road trip in late February through early March that springboarded them into a 6-1-1 homestand, and a serious playoff contender. “We did a good job here at home,” Crosby said. “Now, we got a big test on this road trip. The challenges just keep coming for us.”
Let’s Go Penguins!