DETROIT -- Today could be the day.
The Penguins' magic number to clinch a playoff spot is down to two entering Tuesday's 7:38 p.m. game against the Red Wings in Detroit. That means there are a couple of scenarios tonight that could lead to the Penguins' officially clinching. The Penguins are in with any of the following:
- A win of any sort (regulation, overtime, shootout) over the Red Wings
- The Canadiens lose to the Lightning in regulation
- A Penguins overtime or shootout loss, plus a Canadiens loss in any way
- A Penguins overtime or shootout loss, plus a Maple Leafs regulation win over the Hurricanes
So, there's a pretty good chance Tuesday that the Penguins secure a playoff berth for the 13th consecutive season, and extend their current longest active postseason appearance streak in the NHL. Even after all of those years, simply clinching a spot is not an achievement taken lightly in this locker room.
"I think as players you appreciate how tough it is when you see just the amount of fight that it takes to get there" Sidney Crosby said following the morning skate. "I think that we're still in the situation where we've got to get points. Nothing is guaranteed for us. Even with some of the games we've put together and the amount of points we have, we're still not there yet. We've got to find a way to continue to push. I think we all understand how hard it is. Year after year, it doesn't get easier."
For some of the newer Penguins, the memories of falling short of a postseason berth are still fresh. Nick Bjugstad is in his sixth full season in the NHL, and has only made it to the playoffs once, back in 2015-16. He doesn't have to be reminded how hard it is to make that push.
"From the start of the season, it's an absolute grind," said Bjugstad. "Every point literally matters. Sometimes it's hard to realize that at the beginning of the season, but you don't want to be looking back at the end of the year going 'We should have had this point here, this point there.' So I think as far as making the playoffs and winning, that's an attitude and culture that's brought upon. Obviously, these guys in this group here have done it quite a bit. We want to try to accomplish that as well this year. ... We've got to find a way to clinch it here."
The Penguins would obviously like to control their own fate and secure a spot with a win today. As Mike Sullivan always says, "control the controllable." The challenge ahead of the Penguins is a team that is essentially ... the Grand Rapids Griffins.
The Red Wings have quite the injury list as they close out the end of the season. And with nothing to play for in these remaining games, there's been no reason to rush any of their older players back, instead giving opportunities to some young call-ups from their AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids. Out of the lineup for the Red Wings are:
- Danny DeKeyser, defenseman, lower-body injury
- Mike Green, defenseman, virus
- Jonathan Ericsson, defenseman, lower-body injury
- Trevor Daley, defenseman, back injury
- Justin Abdelkader, forward, foot injury
- Thomas Vanek, forward, mid-body injury
- Michael Rasmussen, forward, upper-body injury
- Lukas Glendening, forward, multiple injuries
- Frans Nielsen, forward, upper-body injury
- Jacob de la Rose, forward, accelerated heartbeat
- Jonathan Bernier, goaltender, upper-body injury
Despite half the NHL roster being out, the Red Wings have been able to put together a nice 7-3 run in their last 10 games, currently riding a five-game winning streak. As strong as the Griffins have been this season (currently No. 2 in the AHL's Western Conference) it's not a huge surprise that the young call-ups have been able to find success over this stretch.
Don't be fooled by the injury list. It'll still be a challenge if the Penguins wish to clinch today.
• The Penguins will be without the services of Brian Dumoulin, who is day-to-day with a lower-body injury. It's unclear how he suffered the injury.
• None of the other injured Penguins made the trip to Detroit. Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang skated this morning back in Pittsburgh, while Chad Ruhwedel and Zach Aston-Reese did not. Malkin is closer to returning than Letang is.
• With Dumoulin out, the defense rotated pairings during the skate. The forward lines were the same that the Penguins finished the game with against the Hurricanes, after shuffling around the middle two lines during the game:
Guentzel - Crosby - Rust
McCann - Blueger - Kessel
Simon - Bjugstad - Hornqvist
Johnson - Cullen - Wilson
• The Penguins shook up the power play unit during the skate, with Bjugstad taking the place of Patric Hornqvist, alongside Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Phil Kessel and Justin Schultz. Hornqvist was relegated to the second unit, playing with Dominik Simon, Jared McCann, Marcus Pettersson and Olli Maatta.
"I don't think it changes a whole lot," Crosby said of the switch. "(Bjugstad) is a right-hand shot, he's playing in front of the net. Just being aware of tendencies, but we haven't really played together a whole lot. He's just a big body and he's going to create a lot of havoc in front of the net. He can shoot the puck."
Sullivan explained his reasoning for the swap.
"(Bjugstad) brings a little bit of a different skillset than what Horny brings," said Sullivan. "We're not locked into either combination, we could use both guys. Horny is obviously really good net-front, great screening the goalies, good on loose pucks. Nick brings a little more skill level with down-low plays or wherever it may be. They're just a little different in what they bring to the group. But we have the ability to use both."
• As expected, both Matt Murray and Jimmy Howard will start.
• Bryan Trottier was in the stands to watch the Penguins' skate. No sign of noted superstar Brian Bellows anywhere (who still lives in Minnesota and works as a broker), so Trottier kept it low-key and stuck to chatting with former teammate Bob Errey.
I've seen some of these Grand Rapids guys play this season, and they're no joke. You also have a guy like 22-year-old forward Taro Hirose, who just joined the team this spring following the conclusion of his senior year at Michigan State, putting up six points in his first seven games in the NHL. The Red Wings don't have anything to play for at this point of the season, but these individual players do. They're looking to make a good impression and stick in the NHL next season.
This is absolutely still a challenge, despite what the standings and injury list may lead you to believe at first glance.
For now, this is what those middle two lines should look like. The Simon-Bjugstad-Kessel and McCann-Blueger-Hornqvist combinations didn't quite work for the first two periods last game, even though something had to change to try to spark Kessel and Hornqvist. Then of course, Hornqvist snapped his drought seconds after being reunited with Simon and Bjugstad. That third line just clicks.
The swap of Bjugstand and Hornqvist on the power play won't be approved by all, especially after Hornqvist's roaring celebration just two nights ago, but I'm in favor. It's a change that's as easy to undo as it was to make, so the risk vs. reward here is not high at all.
Bjugstad has just one goal on the power play since joining the Penguins, against his seven at even-strength, but he's used his shot in that role to help create chances in the way he does while even. He spent most of the power play practice in front of Murray in net, but he'd also swap with Guentzel on the wing as the flow of play allowed, and come into the high slot as Hornqvist does to free up the shooting positions.
I asked Bjugstand if Guentzel's ability in front of the net was something that would help so he can bounce out to the wall and work his shot when he gets chances. He essentially said that he likes using his size around the net to create chances for the power play, but when working with an extra skater, there are chances to move around and create opportunities for everyone.
His biggest contribution should come in the form of zone entries and puck retention when the power play does get into the zone. Without Letang, it's been an area the team has struggled with, and Bjugstad is strong on the puck when entering the zone and does a great job low forcing teams to make mistakes and stifle clearing attempts. It's a big reason the third line with Simon and Hornqvist has been such a great possession line, and I can't blame Sullivan for wanting to see if that can translate and help the top power play.
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY
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