This past week could not have gone any more perfect for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
They went 3-0-0 in a series of games against bottom teams in the Eastern Conference, swept a back-to-back series for the first time all season, saw Kris Letang return to the lineup, and watched as their power play started to take off with the arrival of Rickard Rakell on the top unit.
Overall, they are now 16-8-4 on the season, are 12-2-2 in their most recent 16 games, remain one of the league’s best 5-on-5 teams, are getting major contributions from both special teams units, continue to rapidly climb the standings, and are on five-game winning streak going into this week.
There remains a lot to like about the direction this team is going in.
Getting that perfect 3-0-0 sweep this past week also helps because things do get a little tougher on the schedule this week, starting with Monday’s game against the Dallas Stars.
Dallas is going to be a tough way to start the week because the Stars are — in my mind — one of the most intriguing teams in the league. I have been very bullish on them for a couple of years now, and they are not going to be a walk in the park. They have one of the league’s most dominant top lines with Jason Robertson, Joe Pavelski, and Roope Hintz leading their offense. That trio has played 280 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey this season and outscored opponents by a 25-9 margin in that time. Over the past three years that trio has outscored teams by a whopping 89-52 mark.
It is the engine that drives the Stars, and while all three players have been sensational individually it is Robertson that makes that unit go. In just his third year in the league he has rapidly developed into one of the NHL’s best and most electrifying players, and enters Monday’s game as one of the league’s top scorers and a bonafide MVP candidate.
With him and Sidney Crosby both on the ice it will be a matchup of potential MVP candidates as Crosby continues to lead the Penguins and play like an ageless wonder. Both players are among the league’s top-10 scorers, while Crosby with 38 points in his first 28 games is on track for what would be one of his top offseasons in the NHL, even in his age 35 season.
Along with Robertson and the top-line trio, Dallas is also getting resurgent seasons from Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn to improve their scoring depth, has a top-tier No. 1 defender in Miro Heiskanen, and an emerging superstar goalie in Jake Oettinger. They will not be an easy team to deal with.
After that, the Penguins go on the road for two games at Florida and Carolina.
The Panthers have to be considered one of the biggest disappointments in the NHL this season. After winning the Presidents’ Trophy and averaging more than four goals per game during the regular season a year ago, their offense has dropped off a bit, and they enter the week on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
They added Matthew Tkachuk to their lineup this offseason (and he has been great), but still lost a lot of talent with Jonathan Huberdeau, Claude Giroux, Mason Marchment, and MacKenzie Weegar leaving, while Anthony Duclair has also missed the entire season to this point with an injury. That is a lot of talent going out the door.
It has also been a tale of two teams depending on which goalie plays. Sergei Bobrovsky has had a miserable year with a sub-.890 save percentage, while the Panthers are just 5-7-1 in the games he has started. Spencer Knight, meanwhile, owns a .915 save percentage while the Panthers are 8-4-3 in his starts.
After Florida, the Penguins go on the road for their second meeting of the season with the Carolina Hurricanes following their overtime game two weeks ago. The Hurricanes have started to pick up their pace again over the past two weeks and enter the week with a 5-0-1 record in their past six games, while still also owning one of the best defensive clubs in the league. I still think they have another level they can reach, especially offensively, but they are going to be a tough matchup, especially on the road. The big advantage the Penguins will have here is that even though they will be on the road on a small road trip, they will be rested going into that game while the Hurricanes will be playing the second half of a back-to-back situation. It will be nice for the Penguins to catch an opponent in that situation after playing so many back-to-backs against rested teams earlier this season.
Overall this is going to be a really tough week with matchups against what should be three pretty good teams, with two of them coming on the road. If the Penguins can get three or four points out that it should be considered a success and continue to put them in the right direction this season.