Looking at the Skeddy: Next 5 games provide challenges for Pens

UNIONDALE, NY - DECEMBER 10: Paul Martin #7 of the Pittsburgh Penguins (L) scores at 10:10 of the third period and is joined by Evgeni Malkin #71 (C) and Chris Kunitz #14 (R) at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on December 10, 2011 in Uniondale, New York. The Penguins defeated the Islanders 6-3. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Sidney Crosby is the best player in the world. Kris Letang was writing his candidacy for the Norris ballot. Neither has been on skates recently and heaven only knows when one, or both, might be back in the lineup. It's certainly no time in the near future.

Despite this, the rest of the Penguins will have to carry on. The next five games could well be the toughest they see all season.

Friday, the Pens play host to the Eastern Conference-leading, outdoor-rink-saluting New York Rangers. After a long layoff, how will their legs be?

Saturday, they're right back at it when Ilya Kovalchuk and the New Jersey Devils (who thumped Pittsburgh in their last game) make an appearance at Consol.

Next Tuesday, Jan. 10, the Ottawa Senators come to town. Ottawa has been one of the biggest pleasant surprises in the East, currently clinging to sixth place in the conference and are winners of three straight games. The last time they faced the Pens, the Sens tallied six goals to secure a win.

Then the Pens have to fly to Washington for the back-end of a back-to-back with the Caps. Don't look now, but Washington's won four straight games. Furthermore, apparently Alex Ovechkin remembered he's capable of racking up points, as he has multi-point games in those four games.

Finally, the Pens finish up this highlighted segment by flying down to Miami for a game with the Southeast division-leading Florida Panthers. Florida's fallen off a little lately, but they did take the first game against Pittsburgh down in their barn.

The Penguins have yielded positive results against the weaker teams in the league, but have a tough record against the better teams. And on the surface, this is common sense and basic: The good teams are gonna beat ya more than the bad ones.

Evgeni Malkin and James Neal have been phenomenal and the missing offensive muscle from last year. Paul Martin is on the comeback trail and should be back soon to help bolster the defense with Brooks Orpik, Zbynek Michalek and Matt Niskanen. Pascal Dupuis' been a five-tool player, if hockey had such a term, and Jordan Staal's been a force at both ends of the ice. All of these guys, plus Chris Kunitz and the surging Tyler Kennedy, will have to continue to lead the way on the ice for the Pens to have a chance.

The NHL regular season is a long and grueling test, and this next five-game stretch will give the Penguins a pretty good chance to measure themselves.

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