Top Shelf: Pens hope to quiet the storm

Philadelphia, PA ( – The Pittsburgh Penguins were in the
midst of a quietly successful season until a few weeks ago, but the situation
has changed in a hurry.

Suddenly, there is a lot of noise surrounding Pittsburgh’s beloved team and
the sound it’s making is as pleasing to the ear as the clanging of steel on

On Tuesday, the Penguins have an opportunity to quiet the tumult, but just
as easily it could build to a deafening crescendo.

The chance to turn things around before it’s too late comes with a road game
against the Ottawa Senators. Only a few months ago, it seemed like the Pens
were cruising to another playoff appearance while Ottawa was floundering
toward missing the postseason for a second straight spring.

Now the Senators have a chance to add to Pittsburgh’s misery, especially if
they can record a regulation victory over the struggling Pens, who have failed
to gain a point during a three-game losing streak. A 3-8-1 stretch over the
last 12 games has put Pittsburgh’s eight-season playoff streak in jeopardy, but
for now at least, Sidney Crosby and Co. still control their own destiny.

Ottawa enters the showdown outside the Eastern Conference playoff picture, but
it still has a few avenues into the postseason and taking over Pittsburgh’s
playoff standing is just one possibility. The Sens also have a chance to catch
Boston and Detroit, who like the Penguins, also have 95 points this season.

Even a regulation win on Tuesday wouldn’t propel the Sens into a playoff seed.
They are two points behind the Pens for the first of two wild card spots, but
Pittsburgh holds the tiebreaker thanks to four more regulation/overtime wins
(ROW) with only three games remaining for both teams.

Still, the Penguins can’t afford to let things fester any longer. Although the
club’s struggles go back several weeks, Pittsburgh’s last three games have
made the situation go from worrisome to desperate. The Pens suffered a pair of
4-1 losses to Philadelphia and in between they coughed up a 2-0 lead en route
to a 5-3 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Both the Blue Jackets and Flyers,
of course, are teams which won’t be playing postseason hockey in 2015.

There is no question the Penguins outplayed the opposition in their most
recent setback Sunday. They outshot the Flyers by a 47-20 margin in
Philadelphia yet didn’t solve goaltender Steve Mason outside of a power-play
goal late in the first period.

Pittsburgh needs to continue to be active on offense against Ottawa, but the
Sens have a goaltender capable of stealing a win just like Mason did on
Sunday. Andrew Hammond has earned the nickname “Hamburglar” while leading the
Sens back from the dead during a late-season surge into the playoff

If the Pens somehow manage to collapse and miss the playoffs this season, it
will leave the team with serious questions about its identity. The club made
major changes to its staff following a second-round playoff loss to the New
York Rangers last spring, firing both head coach Dan Bylsma and general
manager Ray Shero in the offseason. New GM Jim Rutherford’s job would seem to
be safe even if the Pens completely melt down and miss the postseason, but
it’s not unrealistic to think head coach Mike Johnston may have to take the
fall after just one season behind the bench.

There is also the remote possibility a collapse could result in a major roster
shake-up. In the afterglow of a 2009 Stanley Cup championship season, it seemed
like Crosby and fellow superstar forward Evgeni Malkin would be Penguins until
the end of their careers. If the Pens can’t prevent a downward spiral and miss
the playoffs, would Pittsburgh dare entertain the notion of trading one of its
big guns?

It obviously would take an overwhelming trade offer for the Pens to even
consider dealing the likes of Crosby or Malkin, but it doesn’t seem as crazy
an idea as it once did. In the salary cap era, it may not be feasible to hold
onto both stars and still round out the roster with other championship-caliber
players. Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman seems to be the best there is at
cap management, and he needed to take drastic measures to bridge the cap
between his club’s 2010 Cup win and it’s return to glory in 2013.

Of course, the Pens can go a long way toward ending the talk about their
team’s inherent flaws with a win over the Senators on Tuesday. But even if
they manage that and wind up making the postseason, Pittsburgh isn’t
inspiring confidence of a deep playoff run this spring. If the Pens bow out
before the conference finals again, they will only be in slighter better shape
than if they missed the playoffs altogether.

Such is the life of a team which has seen expectations grow to oversized

Nothing short of another Stanley Cup title will stop the constant chatter
surrounding Pittsburgh’s disappointing finishes to seasons. It can quiet the
noise for a brief time with a win over the Senators, but there’s a good chance
the din will return. And each time it does it comes back at an even louder