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The Week Ahead: Penguins have great chance to keep building momentum

They have three games this week against the Columbus Blue Jackets and Buffalo Sabres.

Calgary Flames v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Penguins are now on a 9-2-2 run thanks to a really solid week that saw them collect five out of a possible six points against the Carolina Hurricanes, Vegas Golden Knights, and St. Louis Blues. They have climbed back into a playoff position in the Eastern Conference, are climbing the standings, and starting to look like a really, really good hockey team.

They have built some nice momentum here. They have a chance to continue building on that this week with three games against the Columbus Blue Jackets (home) and the Buffalo Sabres (away and home back-to-back).

The week starts on Tuesday at home against the Blue Jackets. The Penguins have already seen the Blue Jackets one time this season, erasing an early deficit on their way to a convincing 6-3 win in Columbus. The Blue Jackets have been for (at least for me) one of the bigger disappointments in the NHL this season. They were in 10th place in the Eastern Conference a year ago despite having some of the league’s worst goaltending. The surprising (perhaps even stunning) addition of Johnny Gaudreau in free agency, as well as the hope that the goaltending could bounce back, had me thinking they might be able to be a sleeper playoff team in the Eastern Conference. Especially if their young defense and a young center like Cole Sillinger could take a big step forward.

It has not worked out that way for them at all. The goaltending has been mostly bad, Sillinger has not taken a step forward, and they have been absolutely decimated by injuries this season. Especially on defense. All of that has put them at the bottom of the Eastern Conference and the Metropolitan Division.

Jake Bean, Jakub Voracek, Adam Boqvist, and Zach Werenski are all major players that are currently sidelined due to injury, while Werenski will not be able to return until next season. Patrik Laine has also missed significant time this season due to injury.

In Columbus’ defense, it has played a bit better recently entering the week with a 5-4-2 record since early November.

Buffalo is a very interesting team. The Penguins also played the Sabres one time this season, allowing a 3-1 third period lead turn into an ugly 6-3 loss in what was one of their worst showings of the season during that seven-game losing streak. The Sabres have some things going for them.

Still not sure they are very good, do not trust their goaltending, and do not like their depth, but they do have some some really good building blocks and at least seem to be on the right track. Rasmus Dahlin is the player to watch here because after constant coaching and system changes early in his career, as well as a ton of chaos around him, he is finally starting to become the superstar the Sabres hoped he would be when they picked him No. 1 overall. He should be considered an early front-runner for the Norris Trophy. He has been that good.

Tage Thompson is the other big (literally) player to watch here. There was not a more fascinating player for me this season in the league than Thompson because I wanted to see if his performance a year ago, in which he scored 38 goals in 78 games, was legit or if it was just a fluke. Turns out, it looks like it was legit. He is not only matching what he did a year ago, but is also building on it.

The Sabres have some very good pieces in place, and they can absolutely score. Thompson, Dahlin, Jeff Skinner, Dylan Cozens, Alex Tuch, and rookie Jack Quinn are all putting up numbers. It is a fun team, it is an exciting team, and it is one that can be a handful, especially in a back-to-back situation where you have to play them two different times in 24 hours. The back-to-back situations have been tough for the Penguins this season as they are just 1-4-1 this season on the second half of back-to-backs, with one of those four regulation losses being the initial game in Buffalo during the losing streak (that came after the Penguins traveled from Pittsburgh to Buffalo).

Even with all of that, these are three games against two teams near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. We should want to see at least four points out of this week. Get those four points and you keep the momentum that you have built over the past month going strong.