After storming out of the gate at warp speed in October, the Penguins have cooled off a bit in recent weeks.
An almost unbelievable amount of injuries to key players, a scoring slump by captain Sidney Crosby (in part caused by those same injuries, no doubt), the emergence of the Islanders, and re-emergence of the Capitals as viable threats to the Metropolitan Division crown have all made life a little less comfortable in the' Burgh.
While the Pens have certainly been no stranger to injuries in the past, life in the Metro has always been pretty comfortable for Crosby and Co.
At this point last year, the Penguins had more or less taken a stranglehold on the division, sitting comfortably atop the division standings an astounding 13 points ahed of second place Washington and a staggering 17 ahead of the third-place Flyers.
This year? not so much.
Through 39 games in 2015, the Penguins are dead-even with the resurgent Islanders with 53 points for first in the division, while Washington and the Rangers are not far behind with 47 and 46 points, respectively.
That's a pretty significant gap to close in just one season's time, and while the Metro and the Eastern Conference as a whole still has it's bottom feeders, a first place finish in the division is no longer a given for Pittsburgh.
But who says that's a bad thing?
The past few seasons were typically ones that saw the Pens rack up point after point against a very weak conference despite the team not being all that deep.
An insanely talented top-six often covered up for a bottom six that was unbelievably deficient. The talent gap in the division was great, so much so that the Penguins could consistently ice a lineup that featured possession black holes like Tanner Glass, Joe Vitale, and Taylor Pyatt and still win games.
Those underlying deficiencies were exposed time and again once the intensity ramped up in the post season, with the Penguins sent packing early every year.
Year in and year out, it seemed like the Penguins faltered once the relative ease of the regular season gave way to the gauntlet of playoff hockey.
This season, tougher competition, especially within their own division, has meant that the Penguins and head coach Mike Johnston have had to constantly adapt to earn the points that, for the most part, came a hell of a lot easier last season.
Prolonged periods of pressure, frustration, and increased intensity were hard to come by in the regular season, however come playoff time it seemed that's all there was.
That hasn't been the case as much in 2015. A four-game losing skid and that aforementioned scoring slump by the captain and linemate Chris Kunitz have turned up the spotlight on a team that usually does;'t feel the heat until March.
What's more, the Pens have gone from a middling to below-average possession team in 2013-14 to one that, when healthy, is among the NHl's best.
All of that bodes well come playoff time.
Like I said earlier, the Penguins have still found ways to win despite the rash of injuries, and while their record against their own division is a less than sparkling 5-6-3, more than a few of those losses came while half the team was on IR.
And with the likes of Paul Martin, Olli Maatta, Patric Hornqvist, and Blake Comeau all set to return to the lineup within the next two or three weeks, Pittsburgh will finally have an a full, NHL-caliber lineup to work with.
How Johnston decides to handle that lineup, and how they perform under him, will tell a lot about the makeup of the team going forward.
It certainly hasn't been smooth sailing so far, but a dose of rougher waters in the winter is what this team needs most to succeed in the spring.