They were in the Stanley Cup final last season, but the Pittsburgh Penguins will be hard-pressed to even qualify for the playoffs this season.
In an interview Thursday, Michel Therrien admitted the math is starting to work against his team's post-season hopes.
After their 6-3 loss to the Washington Capitals Wednesday night, the Pens have a mere 46 points. And the truth of the matter is that, in the past three seasons, no team in the Eastern Conference has made it to the playoffs with fewer than 92 points.
“That’s probably the number we’re looking for,” Therrien said. “There’s some catching up to do. It’s going to be a battle until the end of the year.”
The question is will Therrien be there for the end of the year? There is speculation within the NHL that the Penguins' ownership, which includes former superstar Mario Lemieux, may fire Therrien in the not-too-distant future. One source told us Lemieux himself may wish to replace Therrien behind the bench.
To reach 92 points, as the Penguins' web site pointed out Thursday, the team needs to earn as many points in its final 37 games this season as it has through its first 45.
Therrien said his players understand they need to play with a sense of urgency.
“We understand that as a group we are fighting to make the playoffs,” Therrien said. “We will find a way.”
Entering Thursday night, the Penguins were 10th in the East, a point behind the eighth-place Carolina Hurricanes, who had a game in hand.
U.S. hockey analyst Brian Engblom, a former NHL defenceman, told The Sporting News he thinks the Pens are going to turn it around and make the playoffs.
"I think they are," he said. "It's become sort of the typical story of a team that goes through a free fall like this. It's not just one thing. You start fixing one thing, you start leaking somewhere else.
"Their goaltending hasn't been consistent, their physical play and their coverage inside their own end is poor. They tend to want to jump on offence too quickly. And now, despite having Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, two of the best players in the entire world, they lack offensive confidence. It seems funny to see it from two players like that, but it's certainly no joke at this point. It's a lot of things.
"I think they still have the talent and depth. You don't fall off the face of the earth after going to the Stanley Cup finals and playing as well as they did last year."
Since Nov. 22, the Pens are 9-16-1.
• Engblom, by the way, has a completely different view of Ron Wilson than his Canadian TV counterpart, Don Cherry.
Cherry has been highly critical of Wilson, calling him "garbage" in an interview this week after the Maple Leafs coach suggested in public that Toronto players weren't good enough (ya think?). But Engblom has a high opinion of Wilson.
"I think Ron Wilson was a good choice (for the Leafs)," Engblom said. "He's a tough taskmaster, and he's extremely well organized and well disciplined. They (the Leafs) had fallen into disarray, so he was a good choice."
• And does Englblom think recent free-agent acquisition Mats Sundin makes the Vancouver Canucks a significantly better team than they were?
"Yes, he does," Engblom said. "He has that much talent and power and ability to play big minutes against top centres in the game.
"I think everybody will have to be patient with him. He's been out a long time. At 37 years old, it will be an up-and-down process because he's not just gonna get in there and step on the gas and everything will be beautiful. You look at (Scott) Niedermayer and (Teemu) Selanne, there were some ups and downs with them (last season, when they rejoined the Anaheim Ducks in midseason). But having said that, it gives them so much strength now. You have to be strong at the centre-ice position to win the Stanley Cup. With (Henrik) Sedin and Sundin, that's a terrific combination."
Marty York is Metro's national sports columnist as well as an
instructor at the College of Sports Media in Toronto. He can be heard
regularly on Vancouver radio station CKNW with Sportstalk host Dan
Russell. Contact Marty at email@example.com