Ian Cole and Ryan Strome (Gregory Shamus / NHLI via Getty Images)
The Pittsburgh Penguins suddenly find themselves in desperate need of a win to make the playoffs, after they dropped an important game to the New York Islanders and failed to clinch a playoff spot on Friday. Now, their playoff hopes will come down to Saturday in Buffalo.
After 81 games of futility and losing, the Buffalo Sabres can suddenly play a huge role in shaping the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs.
They can beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in Buffalo, and in doing so, they may help knock the Pens out of post-season contention.
The Sabres have already clinched worst overall in the league, but if anything can get this downtrodden squad up for a game, you’ve got to think this would be it.
The Penguins lost a huge home game to the New York Islanders 3-1 on Friday, blowing their chance to clinch a post-season berth and leaving them open to missing the playoffs if things go badly on Saturday.
“Badly” plays out like this: Pittsburgh loses in Buffalo and Boston beats Tampa Bay. There are a few other permutations to the situation, but it boils down to the Penguins needing a win to control their fate.
Win and they’re in. Lose and they’re in big, big trouble.
Penguins fans certainly have reason to be nervous. This squad has dropped five games straight, including three to non-playoff teams in Philadelphia and Columbus and one to the Ottawa Senators, who used the win to vault over them in the standings.
Buffalo could be a pushover, but the Pens would be wise not to underestimate their opponents.
Pittsburgh simply hasn't shown the killer instinct it needs to have at this time of the year. They're losing too many important games, and even if they beat up Buffalo and stumble into the playoffs, their chances don’t look good against the Canadiens or Rangers.
The Pens certainly seemed fragile in their loss to the Isles. They failed to recover from a controversial no-goal call that went against them and wound up allowing a shorthanded tally just seconds later, spotting the Islanders to a 1-0 lead that turned into 3-1 by the end of the night.
The non-goal seemed to be an early turning point. Patric Hornqvist appeared to get the puck past Jaroslav Halak, but Halak managed to scoop the puck out with the top of his glove before it fully crossed the goal line. The play went to video review but with no conclusive angles available, officials ruled with the no-goal call on the ice.
Referee Jean Hebert was right at the net for the play, so if anyone would know, it's probably him.
It was also Scuderi’s first goal in his second go-around in Pittsburgh, his 100th career point and – get this – the first time he’s scored since he notched one for the Kings on the opening day of the 2012-13 season.
Good for him. Not so good for the rest of his team.
Pittsburgh has a lot of problems right now. Kris Letang, Christian Ehrhoff and Derrick Pouliot are all hurt, with no cap space available for the Pens to call up another defenceman. That left them to dress only five defenders on Friday, and their tired blueline was an obvious culprit on Michael Grabner’s fleet footed goal in the third. Grabner was simply too fast for the overworked Ian Cole or Ben Lovejoy to catch, and he beat Marc-Andre Fleury handily to salt away the game.
Fleury was one of the few bright spots, but he couldn’t hold them in the game forever.
The Penguins’ ship isn’t sunk yet, but it’s listing badly and taking on water. Buffalo could blow the Pens out of the water on Saturday, or leave that to another team in the first round of the playoffs.
Because one thing is clear: this roster doesn't have the guns right now to hang with the best in the East.