When the Pittsburgh Penguins return from their holiday break they are going to see three teams they have yet to face this season, including two more Metropolitan Division teams in the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils.
In between they have a game with the Detroit Red Wings mixed in.
They might be catching all three teams at the right time.
The Islanders have been a postseason horror matchup for the Penguins in recent years, and while this version of the Islanders still has the goaltending to cause teams havoc, they do not seem to have the same magic they had elsewhere in recent years. They are also starting to trend in the wrong direction after a better than expected start.
The Islanders go into Tuesday’s game with only a 4-6-2 mark in their past 12 games and have fallen out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture for the time being. That is stunning when you consider just how good Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov have been in goal for them.
That duo is top-five in the league in all situations save percentage, while each of them are over .919 for the season. Sorokin is again having a Vezina caliber year in the Islanders crease and figures to get the start in Tuesday’s game (on Long Island) following the Christmas break.
The biggest problem for the Islanders is the same one they have had for a few years now. Just not enough difference-makers. Brock Nelson and Mathew Barzal are having very strong seasons, but Barzal has just five goals in 35 games. You always have to account for him due to his speed and playmaking (both of which are still excellent) but he has not yet been able to find his finishing touch this season.
After playing the Islanders on Tuesday, the Penguins return home for another back-to-back situation on Wednesday when they play the Detroit Red Wings.
The Red Wings are an interesting team because they should be at a point in their rebuild and development where they are ready to start contending for playoff spots again. They have a few really good core players in Dylan Larkin, Lucas Raymond, and Moritz Seider, and made some big additions in the offseason with Ville Husso, David Perron, Dominik Kubalik, and Olli Maatta joining the roster.
Even though a lot of the new faces have been very good (especially Husso, Perron, and Kubalik), while Larkin has played extremely well in a contract year, some of the young players have struggled.
Raymond’s offense has taken a big hit in his sophomore season so far, while Seider is really struggling following his Calder Trophy win a year ago. The interesting thing about Seider’s play is the Red Wings have tried to pair him up with another of their big offseason signings, Ben Chiarot, and the results have been brutal. It is basically like watching the Penguins tie Kris Letang to Rob Scuderi a few years ago with the hopes that Scuderi could “cover for him” and be a “safety net.” All it does is hold back the talented player. They are also showing no signs in trying to change it. The Seider-Chiarot duo has been one of the worst defensive duos in the league this season so far statistically. Just awful across the board.
The Red Wings have also been hurt this year by not having some of their better veteran players as Tyler Bertuzzi and Jakub Vrana have only played a handful of games.
This is a team that should be better, started off strong, but has gone just 3-6-3 over its past 12 games.
The Penguins then wrap up the week at home against another Metropolitan Division team, the New Jersey Devils.
New Jersey is one of the most intriguing teams in the league because of the way they started the season, looking absolutely unstoppable. Their young talent has blossomed with Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier looking like stars, they have some really strong complementary pieces, and their defense really took a big step forward. But they have also hit a rough patch here lately coming into the week having only a 3-6-2 record since the start of December.
They were never going to maintain the early pace they were on, some some regression was inevitable, but they are also dealing with some key injuries on defense at the moment and I am still not sure how much their goaltending duo of Vitek Vanecek and MacKenzie Blackwood can be trusted. That looks like a big Achilles heel to me.
This is a big week for the Penguins in the sense of them gaining some more ground in the Metropolitan Division race. Given the way they are playing, as well as the the way the other three teams are playing right now, this should be a good opportunity to keep stacking wins and points. It should be a reasonable expectation to come out of this with four or five points this week.