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Penguins must feast on upcoming schedule

This is their big chance to make a big move in the standings.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Winnipeg Jets Terrence Lee-USA TODAY Sports

By losing nine out of 10 games between the end of October and the middle of November, the Pittsburgh Penguins gave themselves quite a mountain to climb in the standings when it comes to earning a playoff spot. It was one of the worst starts in franchise history (at least recent franchise history) and nobody was particularly happy about it.

But with points in five consecutive games (collecting eight out of a possible 10 during that stretch), they have started to make that daunting climb. It has certainly helped that Sidney Crosby and Derick Brassard are back in the lineup, and on Tuesday night in Winnipeg they played one of their grittiest games of the year in coming from behind against an outstanding Jets team to get to within two points of a wild card spot and three points of the third place New York Rangers in the Metropolitan Division.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about the win was that the third and fourth line contributed to three of the four goals, including two from the much maligned fourth line. It was big. It was needed. It was, hopefully for them, the start of something even better.

Looking ahead at the next few weeks, the Penguins should have a pretty good opportunity to really start to make a move if they can feast on the schedule that is in front of them.

Two of their next three games are going to be difficult as they are against the Colorado Avalanche and their seemingly unstoppable top line of Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog (that includes Wednesday’s game, which will not be easy after playing a tough game in Winnipeg on Tuesday).

Other than those two games against the Avalanche, here are where their next 10 opponents currently sit in the NHL when it comes to points percentage: 5th, 29th, 5th, 13th, 28th, 13th, 27th, 7th, 20th, 31st

That is the two games against the Avalanche, Philadelphia Flyers (29th), two games against the New York Islanders (13th), Ottawa Senators (28th), Chicago Blackhawks (27th), Boston Bruins (7th), Anaheim Ducks (20th), and Los Angeles Kings (31st).

The Islanders still seem like a house of cards, while the Senators, Blackhawks, Ducks, and Kings are all kind of a mess at the moment. Obviously there is a “the other guys get paid, too” element here, and you can’t just count wins based on where a team is sitting in the standings, especially since the Penguins are currently 0-2-2 against those same teams this season. But let’s be honest here, this is still a bit of a break in the schedule and they have to take advantage of that.

The only top-12 teams they play over the next two-and-a-half weeks are the Avalanche and an injury-plagued Bruins team, while two of their toughest games (one against the Avalanche and the Bruins game) will be at home.

No matter who they play, I do want to quickly go back to a point I made at the beginning regarding having all of the top-three centers in the lineup.

Tuesday’s game in Winnipeg was only the 12th game this season all three of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Brassard have all been in the lineup together. The Penguins are now 8-1-3 in those games and are averaging more than four goals per game. It is probably not a coincidence that nine losses in 10 games stretch began when he was out of the lineup, ended when Crosby returned to join him and Malkin, and the team is 3-0-1 since all three have been back together. That only loss was also a strong enough performance to get a win.

Brassard hasn’t maybe provided the offensive impact that was hoped for him when he was acquired, but he is still a really good player. He also makes them a significantly more dangerous team when he is centering the third line as opposed to ... Riley Sheahan.

All three of them staying in the lineup is obviously a pretty big deal.

It is still probably too soon to say that rough stretch is completely behind them and the team is officially back on track, but there are a lot of signs they are getting there. Taking advantage of these next few weeks will go a long way toward getting them completely back in the right direction.