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The week ahead: The captain takes over

Sidney Crosby has the Pittsburgh Penguins back on track

Pittsburgh Penguins v Winnipeg Jets Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Penguins needed to start putting some points in the bank, and this past week accomplished the goal.

Actually, the past two weeks accomplished the goal.

Since ending their seven-game losing streak the Penguins are now on a 5-1-1 run over their past seven games, have climbed back to within a point of a playoff spot, and are starting to look a little more like the team that started the year 4-0-1.

Are they perfect? No.

Do they still have some flaws that need to be corrected? You bet.

But there have also been a lot of positive changes that have helped swing the direction of the season. At least in the short-term.

The penalty killing unit that was so bad at the start of the season has been SIGNIFICANTLY better over the past few weeks, and is starting to kill off penalties at a rate similar to last season.

They also made a couple of tweaks to the lineup that have some of us have been screaming for all year.

Brian Dumoulin has taken on a somewhat smaller role and is no longer playing on the top defense pair, switching places with Marcus Pettersson.

They also swapped Bryan Rust and Rickard Rakell on the top two lines that has helped jumpstart the Sidney Crosby-Jake Guentzel duo, while the Evgeni Malkin and Jason Zucker duo continues its great start.

That latter point has really made a big change. After looking sluggish for more games than we are used to seeing, the Crosby line absolutely took off on the recent three-game road trip, with Crosby putting up especially dominant numbers. He had 10 points on the three-game trip, including a pair of four-point games to rocket him into the team scoring lead with a pretty sizable lead over Malkin.

You knew he was not going to stay down for long, and he did what good captains are supposed to be: Stepped up and took over when the team needed it.

Looking ahead to this week the Penguins finally get a chance to play some games at home after starting the season with only six of their first 19 games at PPG Paints Arena.

They return to action on Wednesday for the always popular night-before-Thanksgiving game when they get a chance to redeem themselves against the Calgary Flames. The Calgary game earlier this year was at the very beginning of their seven-game slide and was one of their uglier performances of the season.

The Flames have not lived up to the hype or expectations that existed for them at the start of the year, while starting goalie Jacob Markstrom has had a brutal start. Despite those struggles, that is still a very good team and a very dangerous roster that is capable of putting together a complete game.

The Penguins follow that with their first look at John Tortorella in Philadelphia when they make a Black Friday visit to the Flyers. Philadelphia got off to a strong start through its first few games, but the bottom has quickly fallen out on that roster. Carter Hart was masking a lot of flaws early on, and he is still having a strong bounce back season, but that is a very bad roster that does not defend well at all.

Things start to get a lot tougher after that visit to Philadelphia.

The Penguins return home for another back-to-back on Saturday against the Toronto Maple Leafs, kicking off a five-game homestand that will feature the Maple Leafs, Carolina Hurricanes, Vegas Golden Knights, St. Louis Blues, and Columbus Blue Jackets. The first four games there are looking really tough.

Toronto and Carolina are definite contenders in the East, while Vegas has been one of the best teams in hockey so far this season. St. Louis got off to an awful start but has turned things around with a six-game winning streak.

But let’s focus on the short-term of just these next three games.

Given where the Flames and Flyers are so far this season, and the way the Penguins have started to play over the past few games, I see those as “would like to have” games with Philadelphia being a “should” have game.

If they take care of those two Toronto becomes a bonus.

Even a 2-1-0 mark over this stretch puts you at 11-8-3 after 22 games, which is literally the exact same point total they had at the same point a year ago.

I am not saying all of the problems are magically solved with the Penguins.

But reports of their demise based on the early losing streak were probably great exaggerated.