For many of us, December is the busiest month of the year. On top of your normal everyday work grind you throw in the holidays and everything that comes with it. Shopping, parties, and just general chaos can make December a draining month.
For the Penguins, December offers a bit of a reprieve.
After a grueling opening two months that saw the Penguins play seven back-to-back situations, a long Western Canada road trip, and a slate of top tier opponents, the schedule becomes more forgiving in December.
Let’s break it down, starting with the schedule itself...
December Schedule Breakdown
Total games: 14
Home/Road Splits: Home-8; Road-6.
Combined Record of Opponents: 131-114-31
Schedule Highlights: Home and home with the Buffalo Sabres to open the month. Five game homestand between December 2nd and December 11th. Three game Rocky Mountain/Desert road trip. First meeting with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights in Las Vegas. Last game of 2017 New Year’s Eve against the Detroit Red Wings.
After an opening two months that saw the Penguins play 26 games, including seven back-to-back contests, the league was much kinder to the team in December.
Even though the 14 games scheduled for December is their highest total for a single month to date, the Pens will only play back-to-back one time and they get that out of the way right off the bat.
Beginning tonight in Buffalo, the Pens will kick off the month with a home and home series against the Sabres that ends tomorrow night in Pittsburgh. This is the only back-to-back on the docket for December, a relief for a team with the highest total in the league.
Saturday night will also be the start of an extended five game homestand that welcomes the New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Colorado Avalanche in to town in addition to the Sabres.
Following the string of home games, the Pens will head out on the road for a Rocky Mountain/Desert road trip that opens with their first game against the expansion Vegas Golden Knights and includes stops in Arizona to face the Coyotes then to the Mile High City for another date with the Avalanche.
A small three game homestand straddles the Christmas holiday with the a game against the Anaheim Ducks sandwiched between two games against the division rival Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Pens wrap up 2017 on the road, heading to Carolina for a meeting with the Hurricanes then a New Year’s Eve tilt against the Detroit Red Wings.
Although December is their most game heavy month on the calendar to this point, the lack of back-to-back games is surely a great holiday present for the players. The ability to rest up between contests will allow the players to save themselves for the playoff push that awaits them once the calendar hits 2018.
Another bonus for the Pens in December is the quality of opponents shifts in their favor. As of this writing, only four of their eleven scheduled opponents are currently in a playoff spot.
According to the chart below provided by Travis Yost on his twitter, when you factor in the home/road splits and the expected opposition goal percentage, the Penguins schedule difficulty ranks 29th in the league.
Strength of schedule (home/road; expected goal%) through Dec 31, 2017. Leafs schedule coming up is BRUTAL. Bruins and Devils have it nice through the holidays.. pic.twitter.com/3KiMBxEhCr— Travis Yost (@travisyost) November 28, 2017
Any team can beat their opponent on any given night so strength of schedule means little when the games are being played but after a grinding start to the season it is nice to see the Penguins get a little bit of a break and at maybe the perfect time.
With Matt Murray listed as week-to-week with a lower body injury, Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith will carry the load in goal. Based strictly on how the schedule breaks down for December, our best guess is Jarry will do most of the heavy lifting while DeSmith plays the role of back-up.
There is never a good time to lose your starting goaltender for an extended period but a light schedule in the month of December could help the Penguins dodge a huge bullet.
This December cool down provides the Penguins with a great opportunity to amass points and solidify themselves in the standings before the playoff chase begins to heat up once the new year rolls around.
Just the decrease in back-to-back games should provide a boost for the Pens and allow to them play their uptempo style more effectively with more rest between games. Even their one back-to-back set to begin the month is coming off a three day break and it’s short travel between Pittsburgh and Buffalo.
The only significant travel of the month will be out west where the Pens will face-off against the Golden Knights, Avalanche, and the NHL worst Coyotes. Once again none of those games are played consecutively and the Pens even have a two day break before heading out and another two day break once they return to rest up.
Their final multi-day layoff of the month comes over the Christmas where the entire league shuts down for the holiday.
Losing Murray for what could be the entire month and perhaps even longer does sting but the recent play of Jarry has been promising and he will finally get to put his immense talent on display as a number one goaltender in Murray’s absence.
Overall, this schedule works out great for the Penguins for a variety of different reasons. Quality of opponents on the schedule gives them an opportunity to rack up points in the standings, lack of back-to-back games allows more time for rest, plenty of home cooking on the schedule, and it minimizes the loss of Murray as much as possible.
Packing 14 games into a month may seem like a lot, but with the way the games a spread out, this is a nice reward for a team who faced a gauntlet to open the season and finally gets a breather before things get serious.