Penguins — somehow — are within striking distance of a playoff spot



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They are the oldest team in the NHL. They dealt away the best player available at the NHL trade deadline. They can’t shake a virus.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have no business claiming one of the two remaining Stanley Cup playoff spots not locked down in the Eastern Conference.

But they could.

If they do, the early days in April will be remembered as one of the most surreal weeks for a franchise that has known its share of unbelievable moments. A 6-3 victory over the Devils in New Jersey, coming off the heels of a 5-2 win over the Rangers in New York the previous night, pushed the Penguins within reasonable striking distance of perhaps their most unlikely playoff berth.

Seriously.

If the Penguins pull this off — and a regulation win against the Capitals in what suddenly is a showdown in Washington on Thursday night will bring a cold sweat to quite a few teams ahead of them in the standings — they’ll author one of the wildest comebacks in franchise history.

Mario Lemieux would blush at what the franchise he once owned was attempting. It might be impressive enough to coax him into taking in a playoff game at PPG Paints Arena.

OK, nobody should get ahead of themselves, but …

“We’re still in this fight,” Marcus Pettersson said.

A simple decision — Pettersson putting the puck toward the opponents’ goalie — set up Rickard Rakell’s go-ahead goal late in the third period on Tuesday night.

It took almost an entire season, but a Penguins player finally didn’t overthink his options with the puck on his stick. It took just as long for a power play that was supposed to carry them to the playoffs to keep them in the playoff hunt.

Captain Sidney Crosby scored that power-play goal under seven minutes into the final period. Evgeni Malkin, the longtime Batman to Crosby’s Superman in Pittsburgh, scored a minute and seven seconds later to erase the Devils’ two-goal advantage.

Rakell scored about eight minutes later. Malkin and Crosby promptly followed with second goals within 51 seconds after Rakell, and the Penguins couldn’t keep themselves from celebrating.

Even though they scored first, the Penguins spent two periods chasing the Devils at almost every turn. They found that “juice” they’re always talking about, and it hit like a sugar rush.

Coach Mike Sullivan noted how the Penguins’ win against the Rangers “took a lot out of our guys.”

It showed until it didn’t.

“It’s desperation,” Crosby said. “We know it was going to be an uphill climb.”

That remains true of getting into the playoffs, too.

Records the last 10 games

Team

  

Record

  

6-3-1

5-3-2

5-5-0

5-5-0

4-4-2

4-5-1

2-5-3

The Penguins can’t afford to lose any games in regulation — if at all — if they’re going to complete what was unthinkable a month ago. Then, Crosby was mired in a funk, Jake Guentzel was traded, and most of their fans wanted first-season hockey boss Kyle Dubas to blow up the roster before the offseason.

“High marks for our character in here,” Pettersson said Tuesday night.

He’s not wrong.

Whether stubborn or ignorant, the Penguins have embraced defiance even if they haven’t exactly stormed the gates since Guentzel was traded. They are only 6-5-3 since Dubas swapped Guentzel for a package that included Michael Bunting and multiple prospects.

Bunting isn’t a better player than Guentzel. He might, however, be a more needed fit for these Penguins. He’s made his home near opposing goalies and done what managers and coaches insist good players should: been hard to play against.

His first taste of the most intense rivalry of the NHL’s salary-cap era — Crosby’s Penguins versus Alex Ovechkin’s Capitals — comes in a couple of days.

If history is an indicator, Capital One Arena will welcome its share of Penguins fans on Thursday night. The tension won’t match the 14 playoff games between the Penguins and Capitals in Washington since the 2009 postseason, but the contest will carry almost as much importance.

That it’s carrying any at all has a lot to do with late-season surges from Crosby, Malkin and Bryan Rust — holdover forwards from teams that won two of three playoff series against the Capitals from 2016-18, not to mention significant contributors to the Penguins’ two title teams in those years.

After scoring only one goal in 14 games, Crosby has six in his past nine games, including four in the Penguins’ wins over the Rangers and Devils. With 18 points over this run, Crosby is at least adding credence to those within the hockey world who argued he’s a deserving Hart Trophy candidate if what has looked like a flawed Penguins team gets into the playoffs.

Malkin has scored only nine goals in his past 40 games but somehow has an outside chance at reaching 30 — unfathomable even a week ago. He has scored 11 points in as many games, hardly a callback to his heyday as one of the league’s top three players, but certainly an encouraging sign.

Rust, whose early-career reputation was that of a player who scored big goals, has 11 in 15 games. He’s put up 19 points over that span.

Then there is Nedeljkovic, who has emerged as a go-to goalie in the wake of another late-season slide by Tristan Jarry, who like many Penguins has been hit with an illness in recent days. Signed to a one-season deal last summer as a presumed prove-it backup to Jarry, who was given a five-season commitment from Dubas around the same time, Nedeljkovic is probably going to play every game that has meaning for the Penguins between now and next season.

“Ned’s been huge,” Sullivan said, understating the obvious. “He’s a fierce competitor. I’ve said that on a number of occasions. He just battles.”

So do the Penguins. And perhaps they can take what Sullivan said during the second intermission on Tuesday night into Thursday night and beyond.

“I said if we get the next one and get ourselves within striking distance we give ourselves a chance,” Sullivan said.

(Photo: John Jones / USA Today)





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