Things are starting to look a little dicey for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Penguins showed gumption in forcing a 3-3 tie after going down 3-1 on Saturday, but the Tampa Bay Lightning beat them nonetheless, and earned that 5-4 decision in regulation. Pittsburgh’s now on a troubling four-game losing streak, and they’ve only won three of their last 11 games (3-7-1).
It was a nasty game, with Sidney Crosby getting involved in some of the physical stuff.
The good news is that, as of this writing, the Penguins are still ranked as the second wild-card team in the East. The bad news is that a healthy buffer has now transformed into a tiny margin for error.
Here’s an update regarding the most relevant teams next to the Penguins in the standings: the Blue Jackets (currently holding the third seed in the Metro), and nearest bubble teams.
Blue Jackets, third in Metro: 30-20-3, 63 points, 53 games played, 30 regulation/overtime wins
Penguins, last WC: 28-20-7, 63 points, 55 GP, 27 ROW
Hurricanes: 28-21-6, 62 points, 55 GP, 27 ROW
Sabres: 27-20-7, 61 points, 54 GP, 23 ROW
Flyers: 25-23-7, 57 points, 54 GP, 23 ROW
Seeing Columbus also at 63 points might bolster some hope, but that can be deceptive considering the Blue Jackets’ two additional games in hand. When you look at the Hurricanes, the margin is slim considering their matching ROW totals and one-point difference, while the Sabres could match Pittsburgh’s 63 points by winning their next game. Buffalo would still trail from a tiebreaker standpoint, but it all really highlights the notion that the Penguins could fall all the way out of the East’s top eight if they don’t stop the bleeding.
(The Flyers still look like a far-flung competitor, but with the way Carter Hart is playing, you never know.)
You can pile up some excuses if you really feel like it.
Evgeni Malkin is currently on IR, and the Penguins have basically not had Justin Schultz all season. Matt Murray‘s injury issues rarely seem to cease lately.
There’s also the quite-relevant point that the Penguins have struggled to make the playoffs more than a few times during the Malkin – Sidney Crosby years, and yet they’ve typically been a legitimate threat if the big names can get healthy by April.
The Penguins play five of their next seven games at home, so there are opportunities to get back on track.
Still, for a team that was creating some distance from the pack from December through mid-January, the Penguins must feel a little weary about a real battle against some viable opponents in the Sabres and Hurricanes. Both of those teams are hungry to finally break playoff droughts and take the next steps toward contending, while the Penguins are straining to stay where they’ve been for so long.
It won’t be easy, and you can’t totally dismiss those who are getting worried.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.