Even though their winning streak came to an end on Sunday (in rather frustrating fashion I might add) the Pittsburgh Penguins are still one of the hottest teams in the NHL and have rapidly closed the gap in the Metropolitan Division for the top spot.
Now they get a chance to play some head-to-head games against the top teams in the division, including another rematch with the Carolina Hurricanes and their first crack at the 2022-23 New York Rangers in a rematch of the First Round playoff series from a year ago.
It is a big week.
It starts on Tuesday with a home game against the Rangers, who are in my view one of the most fascinating teams in the league this season.
From the very beginning of the year they have struck me as one of the biggest wild card teams going because I think there is a massive gap in terms of their potential outcomes. I feel like they have the talent to be a potential Stanley Cup team, but there are a lot of variables in whether or not they can actually get there.
They need Igor Shesterkin to be great.
They need to find some depth to replace the players they lost over the offseason.
They need their recent top picks (Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko) to become stars.
If all three things happen? There is a championship foundation there and they can build on what they accomplished a year ago.
If they do not happen, there is a chance this team could be a little disappointing. Not bad. But simply not a major Stanley Cup contender.
So far this season we have seen a little of both from them. They have had stretches where they look like everything is falling into place, and stretches where they look like a pretty ordinary team. Right now, they are going through one of the former stretches as they bring their own seven-game winning streak into Tuesday’s game.
I still want to see a little more production from Lafreniere and Kappo, but Filip Chytil has taken a HUGE step forward, and Shesterkin is starting to get back on track after a slow start to the year. This is going to be a tough matchup between two of the hottest teams in the league.
I do not need to remind you how the playoff series went, but I will anyway.
The Penguins mostly outplayed the Rangers during 5-on-5 play, but got beat in the goaltending matchup. So far this season the Penguins have been one of the best 5-on-5 teams in the league, and with the way Tristan Jarry has been playing lately they should have enough to be able to match up with the Rangers a little better in that department. That is all they needed a year ago. Not somebody to necessarily match Shesterkin, but somebody to just make a few more saves and make the goaltending gap not as wide.
This is a tough game.
They get another tough game on Thursday when Carolina comes to town for the third head-to-head meeting in the past couple of weeks.
The Penguins have dropped the first two games in VERY frustrating ways, losing in overtime on the Bryan Rust non-call, and then on Sunday by letting a third period lead slip away. I liked the Penguins effort in the second meeting a lot more than the first meeting, which is what made not getting at least a point so frustrating. If they repeat that effort at home, and with a white-hot Jarry in goal instead of Casey DeSmith (whose game I did not like on Sunday) I like their chances to get at least a point, and maybe two points.
This is going to be a tough week with two very tough matchups. The good news: They are both at home. It is also a great opportunity to stack some points within the division and make up some more ground. That is going to be a common theme over the next couple of weeks as the Penguins also get their first looks at the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils before the end of the month.
Really like the way the Penguins are playing and love the way they have caught back up to the pack. Now they really have a chance to make a move in the standings.