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This is another good measuring stick game for the Penguins

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It is also a potential first-round playoff matchup at the moment.

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Wednesday’s matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning seems like an important one for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

For one, their loss to the New Jersey Devils on Monday night, combined with the Buffalo Sabres’ win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday night, leaves them with just a two-point cushion for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Realistically speaking I still think the Penguins are a near lock to make the playoffs because for as close as they are to being on the outside of the playoff picture, they are just as close to being in a top-three spot in the Metropolitan Division and now that far out of home-ice in the first round. Plus there is only really one team — Buffalo — that is probably a realistic threat. But when you only see a two-point cushion and your team has not played all that well over the past two weeks it is understandable to have some doubt creep in to your mind.

Plus, if the standings remain as they do this game on Wednesday would be a preview of their first-round matchup.

They also need a big response after a dreadful game against the Devils coming out of the All-Star break where they just looked like a team that had nothing.

The most concerning thing about that loss wasn’t just the fact they were soundly beaten.

It was that they were soundly beaten by a last place team that did not have its best player (Taylor Hall) in the lineup.

It also continued a puzzling trend this season where the Penguins just completely no-showed against a last-place team. After Monday’s loss the Penguins are now only 1-6-1 this season against the four NHL teams that are currently in last place in their division, including 0-3-0 (while being outscored 15-6!) against the Devils.

If they had just won two — only two! — of those seven(!) games they have lost to lace place teams they would be entering the day in second place in the Metropolitan Division, just a single point out of first. It is a lot of missed opportunity.

It also stirs the narrative that the Penguins “play down to their competition,” because that’s the only narrative we can go to when a supposed top-tier team loses to a bottom-tier team. But I do not really buy that argument, and especially not with this particular team at this particular moment.

I do buy into the argument that it may take them some time to really buckle down early in the season (as some of their slow starts recently suggest), but I don’t buy that it depends on the level of competition they are facing.

The problem with this team isn’t that it “plays to the level of its competition,” it’s that it is just too maddeningly inconsistent.

Go back to that stretch in November when they lost nine out of 10 games and infuriated general manager Jim Rutherford. They lost three of their games to last place teams during that stretch, dropping a pair to the Devils and another to the Ottawa Senators. They also lost two games to the now first-place Islanders and games to Tampa Bay, Toronto, and Washington.

They weren’t playing down to their competition, they were just playing poorly no matter who was lined up across from them.

The same thing is happening right now during this most recent stretch of games where they have lost four out of five. Yeah, they lost to bad teams in Los Angeles and New Jersey and struggled with an injury-plagued Arizona team. They lost opportunities to pick up points. But they also played two Stanley Cup contenders during that stretch in Vegas and San Jose and got absolutely crushed by both of them.

Again, they’re not playing up or down to anyone right now.

They are just playing poorly.

That brings us back around to Wednesday’s game against a Tampa Bay team that is just lapping the field this season. It is another big test, against another Stanley Cup contender, during a stretch where the Penguins are trying to play their way out of a funk. It is not the best possible time for such a matchup.

At this point the Penguins are a middle-of-the-road team that sometimes looks great and sometimes doesn’t. They yet to find any consistency this season and have been blown out by the last two Stanley Cup contenders they have faced.

They get another one, at home, on Wednesday night.

It would be a really good time to start one of those stretches of dominance again.