BOCA RATON, Fla. — Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford likes the makeup of his team and feels confident about what it could accomplish this season. The next 17 games will determine if he’s right to think that way.
“Now is the true test,” Rutherford said Monday from the NHL’s general managers meetings.
The Penguins (34-22-9) hold the first wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference, two points ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets and one point behind the Carolina Hurricanes for third place in the Metropolitan Division.
Pittsburgh plays the Blue Jackets twice this week, and eight of its other 15 games are against teams that are currently in a playoff position, including two against the Hurricanes.
“We probably shouldn’t be in this position with the team we have, but we are,” Rutherford said. “In some ways, it may come at a good time, because if this can come together like it should and everybody plays the way they’re capable of, the momentum will be on our side going into the playoffs.”
It should, at least in theory, be harder on the Penguins to find that momentum because of their injuries.
They’re playing without defensemen Kris Letang (upper body) and Brian Dumoulin (concussion), who have each missed the past three games, and Olli Maatta (shoulder), who has missed nine in a row. Rutherford didn’t have a timeline for any of them but said Dumoulin and Letang have resumed skating.
“It’s always hard when you’re banged up, but we just come off a week when we got six out of eight points on the road without Letang, Dumoulin and Maatta,” Rutherford said. “Not many teams can do that.”
He’s probably right.
The Penguins went 2-0-2 on a four-game road trip beginning Feb. 23, when Dumoulin and Letang were each injured on the same play in the first period against the Philadelphia Flyers at the 2019 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series at Lincoln Financial Field. Pittsburgh lost the game 4-3 in overtime after blowing a 3-1 lead in the final 3:04 of regulation.
The Penguins are 6-2-2 in their past 10 games since Feb. 11, when Maatta was injured. That’s good, but it’s not necessarily enough to calm the nerves their fanbase has about their inconsistent play this season.
They went 5-8-1 from Jan. 6-Feb. 9 after going 10-1-0 in their previous 11 games, including an eight-game winning streak. After beginning the season 6-1-2, they went 1-7-2 in their next 10 games.
The goaltending has been the main culprit for the inconsistencies.
After returning from a lower-body injury, Matt Murray, the Penguins’ No. 1 goalie, went 9-0-0 with a 1.55 goals-against average, a .953 save percentage and two shutouts in nine starts from Dec. 15-Jan. 11. He is 11-10-3 with a 3.43 GAA, .898 save percentage and one shutout in his other 25 starts this season.
Casey DeSmith, who has also played in 34 games (29 starts) this season, is 14-11-5 with a 2.86 GAA, a .914 save percentage and two shutouts this season.
“The one thing is our team has shown is it’s a good team and can play with anybody,” Rutherford said. “Then our inconsistencies fall in and we don’t play as well against certain teams because I don’t think maybe all our players prepare the same way for all teams.”
Rutherford wouldn’t name names to throw any players under the bus, but he blamed the Penguins past success for some of the inconsistencies this season.
“Maybe we just take some games for granted,” he said. “Maybe we just don’t prepare the same way.”
It’s the main reason why he made some significant changes to the roster.
Rutherford traded forward Carl Hagelin to the Los Angeles Kings for forward Tanner Pearson on Nov. 14. It was aimed at generating a spark. The Penguins eventually found it, going 16-4-2 from Nov. 21-Jan. 4, including that 10-1-0 stretch.
Pittsburgh acquired defenseman Marcus Pettersson from the Anaheim Ducks for forward Daniel Sprong on Dec. 3. Rutherford said he thinks Pettersson, who has 14 points (two goals, 12 assists) in 40 games with the Penguins, should at least be drawing attention in the Calder Trophy race.
But the biggest shakeup came Feb. 1, when the Penguins acquired forwards Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann from the Florida Panthers for forwards Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan, and two picks in the 2019 NHL Draft (second and fourth round).
“Some of the things I’ve tried to do this year is get a little bit younger, transition on the fly here while we still have a good team,” Rutherford said. “Those changes have ended up being good.”
He also likes the acquisition he made at the NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 25, when he moved Pearson to the Canucks for defenseman Erik Gudbranson. Gudbranson had an assist and was plus-3 in 20:27 in Pittsburgh’s 5-1 win at the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday.
“I can say there was a point back in November where for about 10 days I was pretty concerned, but even through this inconsistency, I like our team,” Rutherford said. “I’d like it to get healthy, be consistent and get that mojo going. If we can do that, we’ll see where it goes.”