Ron Cook: Penguins’ 16-year playoff streak is in jeopardy

Tribune Content Agency

PITTSBURGH — The Penguins went to bed Monday night out of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

I’m thinking they are going to go to bed on April 13 after their final regular-season game in the same rotten position.

Their amazing streak of 16 consecutive seasons in the postseason has to end sometime; right?

That’s OK, though.

The Penguins are playing like a team that doesn’t deserve to be in the playoffs.

The 2-1 home loss to the Ottawa Senators on Monday night was another crusher. For starters, it was the Penguins’ fourth loss in a row. It also was their second consecutive loss at PPG Paints to an also-ran team. The Senators came in with five losses in a row. It was just six days earlier that the Penguins were beaten by the Montreal Canadiens — losers of their previous seven games — before they went to New York and lost a pair to the Rangers.

This latest loss especially hurt because the Penguins were the better team the entire game, outshooting the Senators 49-21. They finally got a goal at 14:39 of the third period from Rickard Rakell to tie the game at 1, and end their scoreless drought at 84:30. But Senators winger Drake Batherson beat Tristan Jarry for a power-play goal at 17:51 to make sure the Penguins would spend a restless night.

Jarry wasn’t bad, certainly not as terrible as he was Saturday night in a 6-0 loss to the Rangers when he was benched for the third time in six games. But he wasn’t nearly as good as Senators goalie Dylan Ferguson, who made his first NHL start and — this might seem hard to believe — made 48 saves.

“I thought we had an awful lot of looks — really high-quality looks — and the puck didn’t go into the net for us,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “We just got to find a way to control our emotions and keep grinding away. I thought we played well enough to win. If we can continue to play that way and get the type of looks like we got tonight, I think we’ll get the results moving forward.”

The loss left the Penguins — stuck at 78 points with 12 games remaining — as the third team in the fight for two playoff spots. The New York Islanders, who had the night off, have 80 points, although they have played one more game. The Florida Panthers beat the Detroit Red Wings, 5-2, Monday night to jump the Penguins with 79 points.

The Penguins haven’t been in this much trouble this late in the season since the 2014-15 season when they had to win their final regular season game in Buffalo to qualify for the postseason. Marc-Andre Fleury pitched a 2-0 shutout in that game and Brandon Sutter scored both goals.

The Penguins’ next two games are back-to-backers on the road against defending Cup champion Colorado and the top team in the Central Division, the Dallas Stars. You probably know those two opponents will be a lot better than the Senators and Canadiens.

Making matters worse, the Islanders are 5-2 in their past seven games and have a much better goaltender than the Penguins in Ilya Sorokin. The Panthers are even hotter, their win against the Red Wings extending their run to 6-0-1. They might just keep rolling despite having goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who has been a career underachiever in big games as evidenced by his 17-29 record in the post-season.

“Everybody scoreboard watches this time of year. It’s human nature,” Sullivan said. “But we’re focusing on what we can control in our game. The reality is we’ve got opportunities in front of us. We’ve got to grab some points. We knew this was going to be a fight to the end. We’ve got to be able to brush this one off. As much as the loss stings, I do believe there is something to feel good about with tonight’s game. Our compete level. Our execution was pretty good. We got a lot of looks.”

Sullivan again talked up Jarry, clearly trying to build his confidence. What? You expected otherwise? Sullivan knows he’s going to need Jarry right for the Penguins to not just make the playoffs but give them their best chance to win a series.

“I thought he was real good tonight,” Sullivan said. “I thought he just looked sharper in the net. Just his movement. His posture. Tracking pucks. Things of that nature. Some of the subtleties of his game, I thought they were much better.”

But even if Jarry can find his best game, it might not be enough because the Penguins’ defensive corps is in tatters. Marcus Pettersson — their most consistent defenseman all season — went on long-term injured reserve on Monday, joining Dmitry Kulikov. Jeff Petry is getting close to returning after an upper-body injury forced him to miss the past two games, but Jan Rutta is week-to-week after sitting out the past two.

Did I mention that 16-year playoff streak is in jeopardy?

Make that serious jeopardy.