The Olympics are over and for some, like Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz it was a golden experience. For others like Dan Bylsma and Evgeni Malkin, the trip back to America is one they’ll be happy to put Sochi behind them. For others it was a great chance to rest, take a vacation and earn a well-deserved winter break from hockey.
But now, suddenly, business is about to pick up for the Pittsburgh Penguins. The beginning part of this week will be about practice and getting everyone back in the Eastern time zone and ready to play. There’s a tune-up game with Montreal on Thursday before the Pens head to Chicago to face the Blackhawks in a Stadium Series outdoor game, in primetime on Saturday night (remember that?).
From there the team stays on the road for a game Wednesday 3/4 against Nashville, followed by another trip west to play the Sharks and Ducks on back-to-back nights in a pair of games against strong teams that will surely be a measuring stick for Pittsburgh.
Oh, and that week in between, Ray Shero will have to deal with the trading deadline on Thursday 3/5. With recent calamities happening to the team’s top two minutes playing defensemen in Kris Letang (stroke, out indefinitely) and Paul Martin (hand injury from Olympics, believed out for a month) does the team have to address adding a NHL caliber defenseman? Can they still afford to use Simon Despres, one of their best and most likely trading chips, still for a deadline deal? Or will they focus on the forwards in adding an external replacement for Pascal Dupuis, or trying to add more depth to give a more consistent 3rd line for Brandon Sutter? And how will the potential for Tomas Vokoun to return from LTIR affect that salary cap and any trades that could be discussed?
As you can see, there are many questions to be addressed and a ton of “balls in the air” for Shero and the Pens to juggle at this point.
The one luxury the Pens have, is space. They sport a 16 point lead in the division over the second place New York Rangers. The main fight in the division this year will be sorting out which teams finish 2nd to 7th, being as the Rangers are only six points up on the current 7th place team, the New Jersey Devils, with Philadelphia, Washington, Columbus and Carolina all in the middle and all jockeying for playoff positioning. The Penguins are lucky to be out of that mess of humanity, a luxury they’ve afforded by playing so well in the first 70% of the season that’s already completed.
Then, we’d be remiss not to mention “hate week” which officially starts when the Penguins get back from California. Monday March 10th the Pens will be in DC to play the Captials, followed by a rematch the following night in Pittsburgh. If that’s not enough to get the hate flowing, the team’s next game is Saturday 3/15 in Philadelphia, followed by another rematch in Pittsburgh the following night on Sunday 3/16.
Oh yeah, welcome back NHL. We’ve missed you.