Division title would pay Penguins postseason benefits
March 19, 2017 12:00 AM
Jeff McIntosh/Associated Press
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury pushes Calgary defenseman Mark Giordano back into the net in the Flames' 4-3 shootout win Monday.
By Sam Werner / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
On Wednesday morning, the Penguins woke up in a position they had yet been in this calendar year.
First place in the Metropolitan Division.
Their 4-3 shootout loss to the Flames in Calgary on Monday pulled them into a tie with Washington for the top spot in the Division and, in turn, the NHL. The last time the Penguins held that position was Dec. 29, before ceding it to Columbus and then the Capitals.
The standings are fluid and, naturally, change on a daily basis. But movement over the past two weeks or so seems to at least indicate that the Penguins haven’t ceded the divisional race to the Capitals quite yet.
“We’d obviously like to climb the standings, we’d like to be number one in the league, for sure,” defenseman Ian Cole said. “Will that happen? Washington’s a fantastically good team. They’ve been consistently great all year long, so it’s going to be hard, but that’s our goal. We want to be the best team in the league and that’s what we’re shooting for.”
Beyond likely claiming the Presidents Trophy — which the Penguins have only won once, in 1993 — finishing in the top spot would provide some potentially significant advantages in the postseason.
The winner of the Metropolitan Division will play the second wild card team in the first round of the playoffs, which at this point looks like the Islanders, Toronto or Tampa Bay. If the Penguins finish second in the division, they’d be matched up against the third-place team — likely Columbus, the Rangers or even potentially Washington.
While nothing in the NHL playoffs is guaranteed, the first scenario seems like a much more manageable path to the second round.
Beyond the matchups, the higher the Penguins finish in the standings, the longer they’ll have home ice and last change throughout the playoffs. Even if they don’t finish in first, holding on to second would give them that advantage in a potentially tough first-round series.
The Penguins, it’s worth noting, entered Friday’s game against New Jersey 27-4-3 at PPG Paints Arena this season.
“We know how important home ice is,” defenseman Brian Dumoulin said. “Especially this year, it seems like we’ve been playing really well at home. I think home ice is very important for us.”
Of course, winning the division also isn’t everything, and the Presidents’ Trophy winner has a notoriously sketchy record in the postseason, with just eight of the 30 winners going on to claim the Stanley Cup.
Cole even pointed back to the 2012 Los Angeles Kings, which made the playoffs as the last team in, but went on to win the Stanley Cup.
“I think that you’ve seen over the course of history, it doesn’t really matter where you’re seeded in the NHL playoffs,” he said. “If you come in playing well, any team can win.”
The Penguins really only have to look as far as last season, when they finish the season in second place, but were red-hot at the right time and stormed through the playoffs to the Stanley Cup.
That’s why the focus over the next three weeks will be a bit more narrow. If the byproduct of strong play down the stretch is the top spot, that’s great. But that’s not the focus.
“If we’re already stressing about trying to win the division or win the league right now, then you get burned out pretty quickly,” Dumoulin said. “We have a lot of hockey coming up left, so it’s important for us to just continue to play each game, kind of look at the next game and not the standings.”
Still, a little bit of scoreboard-watching is unavoidable, even if coach Mike Sullivan said this week he’d like his team to focus on controlling what it can down the stretch.
“This is the big portion of the season, the last 10 or 15 games here is when you gain your ground and the seeding kind of takes place,” winger Conor Sheary said. “I think we’re definitely watching when they’re playing, and I’m sure they’re watching when we’re playing. We’re just going to keep trying to gain points in every game.”
The week ahead…
Sunday vs. Florida: Panthers winger and former Penguin Jaromir Jagr returns to Pittsburgh for the second time this season.
Wednesday at Buffalo: The Sabres will look to earn revenge for the Penguins’ 4-3 comeback win in Pittsburgh March 5.
Thursday at Ottawa: The Senators have made a push in the standings to challenge Montreal for first place in the Atlantic Division.
Saturday vs. Islanders: The Islanders have surged into the playoff picture since Doug Weight took over as head coach Jan. 17.
Sam Werner: email@example.com and Twitter @SWernerPG
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