The most-exciting time of the NHL regular season is upon us – the stretch drive.
For the teams still alive for postseason play, that means figuring out a way to come up with a final burst of collective energy after enduring a grueling and physically demanding NHL schedule.
In addition, this final part of the schedule becomes magnified as teams battle for conference and division championships and jockey for playoff positioning for the upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs.
That’s where the Penguins find themselves now. After getting a little break last week with five practice days and only a couple games, Pittsburgh is thrown back into the heated and ultra-close battle for the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference championships.
But, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Every time I look at the standings, it’s been changing. You can be on top one night and then in fifth place the next, so it’s always interesting,” Penguins forward Jeff Taffe said. “I think it’s great playing these strong teams at the end of the year. It’s going to get us ready for playoff hockey. These teams are going to be fighting for a playoff spot every game, so it’s going to be tough on us.”
The Penguins wrap up the regular season with seven games in 12 days to close March and two games in six days to start April.
After Thursday’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team’s remaining eight games are all against Atlantic Division foes – the Rangers, Flyers, Islanders and Devils. The Penguins play each of those teams twice, once at home and again on the road.
“I think it’s pretty cool how the schedule works out putting so many division games at the end because they are so important. It’s going to be playoff-type hockey here and I think it’s going to be fun,” Penguins forward Ryan Malone said. “It just shows where the league has gone and how competitive it’s been. When you think about all 82 games, there hasn’t been an easy game yet. So, it’s going to be exciting and I think everyone has to get mentally prepared.”
Taffe also likes how the schedule is set up for the Penguins.
“It’s good. I think everybody gets fired up for those games. I think everybody knows how important it is to win those. The scheduling worked out that way this year, they obviously did it on purpose for the conferences and everything like that, but it’ll be fun. Anytime you can play teams like the Rangers, Islanders, Philly and New Jersey, it definitely makes things interesting.”
Of those Atlantic Division rivals, only the Islanders appear to be out of the playoff picture with 71 points. Only eight teams from each conference make the playoffs and the Flyers currently reside in that No. 8 spot. The Devils and Penguins continue to battle for the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference lead, while the Rangers are close behind.
That only intensifies this final stretch for the Penguins.
“Definitely. These teams are going to be fighting for their lives,” Taffe said. “Philly is right on the bubble and I think they are a desperate team and the playoffs are all about desperation. Just preparing for that, I think this stretch will be huge for us. We have to win these games, too, because you never know what might happen.”
The divisional matchups will be huge, too, since each game represents a potential four-point swing in the standings. Plus, winning the division would give the Penguins a huge boost heading into the postseason.
“The division games are the most important ones. If we can win the division, we’re definitely going to be at least second or first in the conference,” Whitney said. “Our goal is to play well. I think we’ve struggled a little bit against division teams, but we really want to pick it up these last few games.”
The Penguins expect some intense battles in those contests, especially as the Penguins wrap up their regular-season schedule with home-and-home series against the Rangers and Flyers.
“We have the Rangers and Philly at the end. It’s going to be a dogfight right to the end of the season,” Malone said. “It’s going to be some great hockey; I am really looking forward to it. It should be pretty fun.”
Of course, playing in such intense and meaningful contests will be good playoff tune-ups for the Penguins.
“It feels like we have nine or 10 playoff games before the playoffs even start,” Whitney said. “These are huge games for us. We want to win the division and we want to win the Eastern Conference, so we’re going to be ready for these games and these other teams will be, too, so they should be really competitive and really good hockey games.”
Indeed. Instead of playing mostly teams that are out of the playoff hunt, matching up against these teams should give the Penguins a taste of what this postseason will be like.
“That’s a good point. Some teams that are out of it, if you get a couple goal lead on them, they might throw in the towel, whereas a team battling for points will keep coming at you and pushing you,” Malone said. “We definitely have to make sure we’re playing our A game here and if we keep worrying about ourselves, we should be all right.”