The Pittsburgh Penguins started to dig themselves out of their early season hole this past week with a strong road trip that saw them collect five out of a possible six points through Washington, Toronto, and Montreal. It puts them right on track with their early season pace through 15 games a year ago and sets the stage for another tough week ahead that sees the Penguins go back on the road for three games (Minnesota, Winnipeg, Chicago) with a home game on Tuesday against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
While the early schedule has not seen the Penguins consistently play a bunch of Stanley Cup contenders, it still has not been kind.
After this week’s three-game road trip the Penguins will have opened the season with 13 of their first 19 games on the road with five sets of back-to-backs. Of those back-to-back situations, nine of the 10 games will have also been played on the road.
That is a lot of travel early, and it’s not an easy ask. Especially for one of the league’s oldest teams.
The Penguins at least get a little bit of a break from that travel on Tuesday when they return home for one game against a Toronto team they just beat over the weekend by a 4-2 margin. That game saw the Penguins play one of their best periods of the season when they completely shut down the Maple Leafs in the third period to get the win. Toronto still has some injury issues in goal, while the Penguins used a strong showing from Casey DeSmith (his second start in a row) to get the win.
The Maple Leafs have been playing better after a slow start, going 4-1-1 in its past six games, collecting nine out of a possible 12 points during that stretch. The only regulation loss was Friday’s game against Pittsburgh.
Every team on the schedule this week has a winning record so far, but there are some favorable matchups the Penguins might be able to exploit.
Especially during 5-on-5 play.
Toronto has been the best of those four teams during even-strength play this season, carrying an expected goals share of 54.09 into Tuesday’s game. That is eighth best mark in the NHL, and just one spot behind the Penguins.
The other three teams do not rate as highly.
Minnesota, Winnipeg, and Chicago all rate in the bottom half of the season, with Winnipeg and Chicago both sitting among the bottom-10.
The Jets are an interesting opponent because their overall record is one of the best in the league, but it is almost entirely the result of starting goaltender Connor Hellebuyck who has been sensational to start the season. He is masking a ton of flaws on the Jets’ defense, and carrying the team. The Jets have one of the more top-heavy lineups in the league as the top half of their roster up front is full of impact players, specifically Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers, and one of the league’s best goalies in Hellebuyck. But everything in between them is lacking. They do not have a clear top-pairing defender, and their scoring depth is limited.
The Wild have struggled to find consistency this season and are dealing with the salary cap constraints that come from the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter buyouts. That situation cost them one of their top forwards from a year ago, Kevin Fiala, and one of their top goalies in Cam Talbot. They still have Kirill Kaprizov, Mats Zuccarello, and Matt Boldy at the top of the lineup, but the depth has taken a hit. Marc-Andre Fleury has also struggled through inconsistency early this season and enters the week with a .905 save percentage. He has looked great at times, but also gone through stretches where he has been giving up goals in bunches.
Chicago, meanwhile, has one of the worst rosters in the league, and despite a stronger than expected start there is not much to like about this team. Their 5-on-5 numbers are dreadful, and outside of some okay performances from Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane there just is not much here. The goaltending has been strong so far, but that is probably not going to last.
So what would a successful week look like here?
The schedule is not kind again in terms of travel and another back-to-back situation (the Penguins are just 1-5-2 in those situations so far) adds to the challenge.
But they have a significant 5-on-5 advantage in three of these matchups.
At some point they need to start really stacking some wing together to climb out of this early season deficit, and collecting five or six out of the eight possible points here seems like it would be a reasonable goal.
You would like to beat Toronto and Minnesota, and hopefully collect at least two points out of those games. You should beat Winnipeg and Chicago.
If the Penguins can split the former two, and win both of the latter two, combined with the recent road trip, that might finally be the start of getting things back on track.