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The Week Ahead Might Literally Kill the Penguins (Tuesday Slew)

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The Penguins can't even skate with playoff caliber teams let alone beat them and oh look at that here come three of them in the next four games.

The Pens have yet to score against the Capitals this season and could face them in the first round of the playoffs. Why can't they handle the division?
The Pens have yet to score against the Capitals this season and could face them in the first round of the playoffs. Why can't they handle the division?
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

If Consol Energy Center has a six-figure panic button shaped like the Civic Arena, it's time the Penguins find out what it's made of.

Pittsburgh is set to play four games in the calendar week starting this Wednesday and ending next Tuesday. Their opponents include the lowly Senators, and that's the only bit of good news, because it also includes the Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings and Washington Capitals.

As of Tuesday morning, those non-Senators teams currently hold a combined 92-46-22 record, .710 winning percentage and three very comfortable positions on the right side of the NHL playoff bubble.

These Penguins, you'll recall, can't beat playoff teams. Lately, they can't even skate with them.

Despite sitting second in the Metropolitan, the Pens (30-15-8) have been nothing resembling a contender since the beginning of December. In their last ten games, the Penguins have gone 4-4-2, roughly .500 in what passes for a record in the NHL's harebrained points system. That has more or less been the case for the last two months.

A big problem for the Penguins is their sudden inability to cope with good, playoff caliber teams. That'll present quite the problem for the Penguins when they reach actual said postseason, like they are almost certainly going to do (11 points separate them from ninth place in the East).

If you think the histrionics surrounding this team are bad now, wait until this time next week.

Three of the next four on the schedule have the look of murderers. Detroit has won three straight and nine of ten. Washington hasn't given the Penguins a goal in 120 minutes of hockey this season. Chicago remains one of the very best teams in hockey.

These are the kind of teams that have owned Pittsburgh of late. Head-to-head, the Pens are 0-2-2 against those teams on the year so far.

Pittsburgh's record since the All-Star break is 4-3-0. Fair enough, if not in any way all that impressive. But dig a little. Three of those four wins have come against non-playoff teams, and the Pens have outscored the opposition by a 13-4 mark in those four contests, thanks to a pair of shutouts from Marc-Andre Fleury over the weekend.

In those three losses, the Pens have been outscored 13-0 -- each at the hands of a current playoff team (Vancouver, Washington and Nashville).

Those aren't losses. Those are beatings. And it's becoming a trend.

While the Penguins are sitting pretty thanks mostly to their work in October and November, a few splits show that there is indeed cause for concern.

Overall Record
30-15-8 (.716 points percentage)

Record Versus Playoff Teams
12-10-5 (.629 points percentage)

Record Versus Playoff Teams in Metropolitan
2-6-2 (.400 points percentage)

It probably stands that most teams win fewer games against better competition. Even the best in the league still fatten themselves on the Oilers and Sabres of the world.

What's concerning is that the Penguins are only *technically* better than .500 against playoff competition because of the NHL's ridiculous standings scheme. Against the most familiar competition, they are putrid. The team's overall division record of 7-9-4 is terrible on its own, given that half the division is so far out of the playoff picture you'd need field glasses to find them.

Against the division's other three playoff seeds in Washington and the New York teams, Pittsburgh's 2-6-2 mark is terrifying. If the Pens are going to get to the Conference Finals, they will have to go through two of those three teams, thanks to the league's division playoff alignment.

In those ten divisional "playoff games," the Pens have been outscored 39-19. They haven't beaten any of those three in regulation since topping the Islanders by a 3-1 final in the first weeks of the season, and the only other win came in a shootout.

Those wins were tight.

As for some of the losses?

4-0 Capitals.

3-0 Capitals.

6-3 Islanders.

5-2 Rangers.

4-1 Islanders.

5-0 Rangers.

There's still more good to this team than bad, by a lot. Even as they've gotten blown out in recent weeks, there is still plenty of blame to be placed on injury (and even simple bad luck).

But the possibility remains that if the coming week's games play out the current trend, Pittsburgh will very likely be in fourth place in a division they lapped by double-digits last season.

It's hard enough to beat any playoff caliber team. Doing so in the actual postseason is going to require getting through a pair of them from within the division, and that playground has thrown dirt in the Penguins' faces all season long.

Cresting that eventual hill has to start with beating playoff teams in the regular season. This week is as good a time as any to find out if Pittsburgh is actually capable of doing so.

Tuesday Slew is a feature that occasionally runs weekdays throughout the season. Shower James with your praise and adulation on twitter @SlewFooters.