March comes in like a lion for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
They hope it goes out like one, too.
The Penguins face a grueling schedule in March with 17 games in 31 days, making it truly the March of the Penguins. It’s only the second time in franchise history the team has had to play 17 games in a month. The Penguins went 10-6-1 in December, 1990.
However, this stretch is more demanding as nine of the games in March are on the road as opposed to seven in that stretch in 1990.
And, it’s quite a gauntlet to get through to qualify for the Eastern Conference playoffs, too.
“Yeah that’s why it’s key right now that we keep rolling. Against division teams, you look at the standings and see how close it is, especially in our conference and our division. It’s definitely pretty crazy,” Penguins winger Colby Armstrong said. “We have to keep our focus. It’s going to be a grind, for sure. If you get on a roll through that stretch and keep rolling through those tight games, it’s very important. Hopefully we keep that momentum going.”
The Penguins opened the month with a pair of back-to-back road games in New York and Carolina. They play three more sets of back-to-back games – March 13 at home against Buffalo and at New Jersey the next day; March 18 at home against Ottawa and at New York the next day and consecutive afternoon home games against Atlanta and Boston on March 24-25.
There will be no rest for the weary as the Penguins play almost every other night. They have two days between games just twice in the month and have only two off days built into their practice schedule.
“It’s not a bad thing. I think you get in a rhythm and you’re able to build that confidence down the stretch, which is never a bad thing going into the playoffs,” Penguins center Sidney Crosby said.
In addition, the Penguins will battle Atlantic Division opponents seven times in the month – huge games in the divisional race as well as the postseason hunt.
“That’s going to be a big test for our character and for our team to show what we’ve got,” Armstrong said. “It’s a good test, especially if we’re going to the playoffs, to give us that playoff mentality down the stretch against teams that we’re battling against to get in the playoffs. It’ll be big. Hopefully, we can keep our focus and just keep rolling in the right direction.”
The Penguins’ recent surge of points in 16-straight games (14-0-2) was the second-best spree in franchise history, second to the 1992-93 Penguins’ 17-0-1 finish to the regular season. It helped boost the Penguins’ standing in the Atlantic Division as well as in the overall Eastern Conference playoff picture. The Penguins (35-21-9) are second in the Atlantic Division behind New Jersey and fifth overall in the Eastern Conference.
“We look at the standings and it’s very close. We have to just take it one game at a time,” Crosby said. “Hopefully, we can continue to look up that ladder and climb that ladder in the standings and maybe give ourselves a chance to rest a little when we have the chance down the stretch.”
The race for the eight Eastern Conference playoff spots is an intense one. Only seven points separate the Penguins from the No. 5 spot in the conference and being out of the playoffs entirely. And, 13 of the 15 teams in the conference all have a postseason shot. After the three division leaders, who automatically get the top three playoff seeds, seven teams are separated by just 10 points.
“It’s incredible. Teams can get hot and teams can get cold. All kinds of things could happen,” Crosby said. “Let’s not count our chickens before they hatch, but let’s continue to keep this snowball rolling downhill.”
By the time March is over, the Penguins hope that snowball has turned into an avalanche.