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Blog : The Final Stretch for the Penguins

By Kipper @pghsportsforum

Now that the Olympics are over, it is now time for the Penguins, as well as the rest of the league, to regain its focus back on the end of the NHL regular season and get ready for their run at Lord Stanley's Cup. It will be quite interesting to see how every team does coming off of the long break. What is even more interesting is to see how long/short it takes for each team to get their chemistry and team continuity aligned like it was prior to the Olympic hiatus. This is not a problem that is unique solely to the Penguins, as all but 5 teams put at least one player onto an Olympic roster. The magnitude, one could argue, probably hit the Penguins harder than most. As we all know the Penguins sent 7 players and their head coach to Sochi. Now I must make a caveat statement before I get to my main point. I do not know what the NHL rules were when it came to practices and workouts during the Olympic break for those coaches and players who did not go to Sochi. And that is important. If, the NHL "banned" organized practices and the like then I would say that sending your head coach and a bunch of players minimizes the impact of sending so many. Since teams were not able to officially practice in team drills/practices etc. there would be no "advantage". However, if the NHL did allow organized practices, drills, and the like, I think that it hurt the Penguins. I think it hurt them more because head coach Dan Bylsma wasn't there to lead those practices. The head coach is the shepherd or sorts, and as anyone who played any sport knows, there is a huge difference in mentality and effort when the practice is organized and lead by a coach, vice players getting together and "doing drills".

The big question that is most likely plaguing Penguins' fans is, how will they perform on the ice against the Canadiens on the 27th (3 days away). I wish I had a crystal ball to tell them, but sadly I don't. What I do know is that 4 of the 7 players the Penguins sent got a medal (Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz, Jussi Jokinen, Olli Maata), which should help morale a bit. But the long, arduous flight back home and subsequent "jet lag" will most certainly play a role. The good thing is, the Penguins again, will not be the only team suffering. Furthermore, the Penguins won't be on the first slate of games to be played coming off the break as well. I also know that when the Penguins have a 3+ day "rest" period between games, their numbers are mediocre at best. The chart below shows you what the Penguins have done in the 15 games they have played when coming off of 3+ days rest.

Blog : The Final Stretch for the Penguins

Summary Chart of general team stats for the Penguins coming off of 3+ days of rest.

As their record indicates, the Penguins are 8-6-1 in their 15 games coming off of 3+ days rest, paltry at best. They have given up more goals (45) than scored (44). Their special teams numbers have remained somewhat constant, although the PK numbers are a full 4.5 percentage points lower at 82.50%, than their overall average at 87.01%. The Power Play is near dead even at 25% versus their overall clip of 25.40%. The 3.00 GAA isn't all that bad, although you would most likely want that in the mid-to-lower 2.00 range. What is more concerning is in 4 of their 6 losses the Penguins have given up 4+ goals and been blown out. This tells me that the Penguins generally have shown a great lack of preparation and effort coming off of long breaks. Couple this with the fact that their head coach is coming off of a dismal bronze medal performance and one of their top 6 defenders out again with injury and we could be seeing a disaster of a game against Montreal coming Thursday night.

However, there is still hope. The Penguins still have to play the game, and while statistics can sometimes give a weary and bleak outlook on things, they in and of themselves are not flawless and perfect. Furthermore, stats are simply that stats. I expect the Penguins to give optimum effort against Montreal. Many young players' careers may ride on it. With the trade deadline looming, this may be the last shot for players to make an impact and increase their trade stock or maybe even impress the coaching and management staff enough to remain with the team. What is sure is that this game will be very exciting with many plotlines.

What Penguins' fans can not do, is read too much into a win or loss. They are 16 points, a full 8 games, ahead of the NY Rangers with only 23 common games remaining between them. That is to say the Penguins have 24 games remaining while the Rangers only have 23 left. Simple math will tell you that it will be very difficult for the Penguins to relinquish 1st place in the Metropolitan Division.

Blog : The Final Stretch for the Penguins

Current Metro Division standings.

So, let's "walk the dog" and draw up a scenario in which the Penguins could lose or potentially lose 1st place, (I am doing this to prove the point at how difficult it would be). Let's assume that in the final 25 games, the Penguins go 12-13 (remember their current record is 40-15-3). Their final record would be 52-28-3, total points 107! The Rangers have 67 points and the Flyers have 66 points. So in this scenario, the Rangers and Flyers would need to put up 40 and 41 points respectively just to tie the Penguins! That would mean for the Rangers, they wold have to go 20-3 in their final 23 games, that's a .870 win%. The Flyers would have to go 20-2-1 in their final 23 games. So in a .500 win percentage scenario for the Penguins, they still run away with the division. The overall #1 seed has no effect really anymore apart from which wild card team you face in the 1st round. Here is what the playoffs would look like, if they started today.

Blog : The Final Stretch for the Penguins

Current Eastern Conference Standings as of 2-24-14.

Notice that the Penguins would be hosting Detroit (the #2 WC), and Boston would be hosting Toronto (the #1 WC). The Penguins are 1-0-0 against Detroit with 2 more games to play, and they are 2-1-0 in the 3 games against the Leafs (for your reference). So what would be a reasonable scenario for the Penguins to lose 1st place? Let's assume now that the Rangers and Flyers win 75% of their remaining 23 games. What would their final record be? The Rangers' current record is 32-24-3, 67 points. At 75% the Rangers would finish their 23 games at 17-5-1, for a final record of 49-28-4, 102 points. The Flyers likewise, have a current record of 30-23-6. If they won 75% of their remaining 23 games, they would finish, 17-5-1, for a final record of 47-28-7, 101 points. So with that said, for the Penguins to only get 101/102 points respectively, they would have to finish their final 24 games (48 points available) with 19 points. That is a 9-14-1 record. I would say that while plausible, this is most certainly not going to happen. This essentially requires a complete meltdown coupled with near perfection on the part of the Rangers or Flyers. I just don't see it happening. So take heart Penguins' fans, you'll see you team in the playoffs, the question is, will they go into the playoffs with their "backup-beepers" on, or in full stride ready to take the Eastern Conference by storm? That question will be answered as we resume play from the Olympic break. Here's to the restart of the NHL season and a fun final stretch headed into the trade deadline and ultimately the Stanley Cup Playoffs!

Follow Scott on Twitter at (@sasalerno) for his thoughts, opinions, analysis.

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