How Can Penguins Get Into Playoffs? Here’s One Surefire Way

The challenge for the Pittsburgh Penguins is pretty simple: Win their final 27 games, and they’ll be in the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring.

Of course, the NHL record for consecutive victories is 17, set by the 1992-93 Penguins, so it’s unlikely that they’ll finish the season with a 29-game winning streak. (They already have a modest two-victory run going after their 7-6 victory against Philadelphia Sunday.)

That the Penguins have won more than two consecutive games only twice all season would seem to work against them running off 29 in a row, too.

The encouraging thing for them is that the teams they’re trying to overtake for third place in the Metropolitan Division — the Flyers, New Jersey, Washington and the New York Islanders — aren’t going to go undefeated the rest of the way, either.

“If we just take care of things, get ourselves back in the picture a little bit, that’s all we have to do,” Sidney Crosby said. “We’re just going to take it a game at a time. I know everyone says that, but it couldn’t be more true at this point for us.”

Trouble is, the Penguins have embarked on what could be a chipper-shredder of a road trip, with games in Vancouver Tuesday, Seattle Thursday, Calgary Saturday and Edmonton Sunday.

The Kraken, who trail the Pittsburgh Penguins by one point, are the only one of those clubs behind them in the overall standings and two — the Canucks and Oilers — are widely regarded as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.

“It will be a challenging trip,” Drew O’Connor said. “But I think we’re up for it. It will be exciting hockey, I think. It’s fun playing in these types of games. It has a playoff feel every night. That’s why you want to play.”

Perhaps, but the degree-of-difficulty the Penguins will face in the next four games — already close to stratospheric — will be ratcheted up even more if they’re missing top-line right winger Rust, who suffered an unspecified upper-body injury during the third period of the Flyers game.

First-line left winger Jake Guentzel already is out, and won’t be eligible to return from the Long-Term Injured list until March 10. Losing Rust would cost the Penguins one of their best two-way forwards.

“(Rust) has been one of our more consistent players all year,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “He plays an honest game. He plays the game the right way, on both sides of the puck. He brings a ton of speed. He’s in great shape. He’s ultra-competitive. We love everything about his game. He plays an inspiring game.”

Being without both of the top-line wingers would be an enormous blow to the Penguins, but after struggling offensively for much of the season, they’ve managed to score 15 times in the past three games. And not because, for a change, Crosby and his linemates have been piling up most of the goals.

“We’re getting contributions (from) throughout our lineup, not just relying on one line,” Sullivan said. “The power play is chipping in, also, which is an important aspect of us winning games moving forward.”

That diversity is a major plus, and the Penguins have other factors that could play in their favor during this trip.

The Canucks lost four in a row in regulation before beating Boston in overtime Saturday, Seattle is just 12-10-5 at home, the Flames are 4-6 in their past 10 at the Saddledome and Edmonton is in a 3-5-1 skid after piling up 16 consecutive victories.

Past results don’t guarantee future performance, of course, but if the Pittsburgh Penguins can pair their rejuvenated offense with the NHL’s fifth-stingiest team defense, they could be a formidable opponent for almost any team.

Nonetheless, the Penguins’ margin for error is microscopic. If their victories over the Canadiens and Flyers are stand-alone successes, their playoff drive will never get past the theoretical stage.

“We know where we sit in the standings,” O’Connor said.

They’re also aware of what they’ll have to do to climb in them, even if it doesn’t involve winning their final 29 games.

“Just finding a way,” Crosby said. “That’s what we’ve got to do.”

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