This is going to be another challenging week for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and a very important week.
Perhaps even a make-or-break week for where their season is going to go.
They enter the week riding a seven-game losing streak, and are going to have to snap it on the road with three more road games, including another set of back-to-backs later in the week.
The potential good news? The next three teams on the schedule are all teams that are also currently struggling.
They start the week on Wednesday night in Washington against a Capitals team that is just 1-2-2 in its past five games.
They follow that up with a back-to-back in Toronto and Montreal against a Maple Leafs team that has some major goaltending issues, and a Canadiens team that has dropped three in a row and five of its past seven games.
The potential bad news? Aside from losing seven games in a row, the Penguins have been absolutely brutal on the road this season. They enter the week with a 1-5-1 record away from PPG Paints Arena, while getting outscored by a 30-16 margin. All of that is bad.
But even more than fixing the road woes, they just need to fix their woes. All of them. The penalty kill. The inability to protect a lead. Just snapping this losing streak. It is starting to get to a point where they need to play their way out of this. I am not at that point of serious concern just yet, but we are getting close to that. Because there does come a point early in the season where a team can put itself into such a deep deficit in the playoff race that not even a great second half can get you out of it. Those points get very difficult to make up.
We have seen many teams over the year post a second half record that is among the best in the league only to miss the playoffs because their first half ruined their chances so much (just look at Vancouver, Buffalo, the Islanders, even Columbus a year ago).
Looking at this three-game road trip, the Penguins need to get at least four points out of this. I do not care how they get them, but they need to get them to start making up that ground they have lost. They could win two games in regulation, or overtime, or a shootout. They could win one and then lose two games in overtime or a shootout. Whatever combination gets them four out of a possible six points, they need that. Because after this three-game road trip they return home for another game with Toronto, and then play 10 of the next 14 games after that on home ice with a schedule that does soften up a little bit.
How can they get those four points?
Well, for starters, they really need the special teams to start producing something.
The penalty kill — which has been one of the weakest aspects of this team so far — is going to get a major test on this road trip with two top-10 power plays looming (No. 6 Washington and No. 10 Toronto). At some point that unit has to stop giving up at least one goal every game and give the rest of the team a chance. If they can find some success against some strong power play units that might be enough to get the momentum ball rolling in the other direction.
It is also a good opportunity for the power play to find some life against the No. 13 (Washington), 17 (Montreal), and 22 (Toronto) penalty killing units in the league.
Overall, the Penguins have played fairly well during 5-on-5 play. Their expected goal share at 5-on-5 is fifth best in the league, and they have a plus-five goal differential when things are even. That is winning hockey. They need to be better in the third period protecting leads, but the recipe and the process is there. It is the special teams where things are completely falling apart. Washington and Montreal have two of the worst 5-on-5 marks in the league as far as scoring chances and expected goals go entering the week. So there might even be a chance there for the Penguins to carry play again.
This is an important week for the Penguins, and if they can’t find a way to get some wins and points on this road trip, their season might actually start to be slipping away from them.