With the All-Star break approaching in a week, and the season now beyond the halfway point, we are starting to get into “four-point game” territory where every head-to-head matchup can make a big impact on the standings.
Even though the Penguins dropped a tough overtime game on Sunday (ANOTHER overtime game) I do not hate where they are over the past few games, especially with Tristan Jarry and Jeff Petry back in the lineup and Kris Letang’s return hopefully looming somewhere around the corner.
They have 10 out of a possible 16 points over the past eight games and are sixth in the Eastern Conference by points percentage.
Not a great spot to be in, but also not a terrible spot. It could be worse. It should be better.
They have a chance to really improve that standing going into the All-Star break with the games against Florida and Washington on Tuesday and Thursday.
The Florida game on Tuesday is going to be a tough one because the Panthers are starting to get their act together after a disappointing start and are coming into Pittsburgh having won seven of their past 11 games (7-3-1) since the start of the new year. Their offense is also starting to more closely resemble the one that dominated the NHL a year ago. They have scored at least four goals in five consecutive games and in six of the past seven games.
That has helped them climb back into playoff contention in the Eastern Conference as they sit just three points back of the Penguins in the Wild Card race. The Penguins do have two games in hand and a bigger lead in terms of points percentage.
Still, that is a game where getting two points outright would be a massive lift for the Penguins.
Matthew Tkachuk is the player to watch here as Florida’s top offseason acquisition has been everything they could have hoped. Along with being a total pest and pain in the butt, he is one of the best all-around players in hockey.
They follow that up on Thursday with a trip to Washington to play the Capitals, which is an even bigger game given that it comes within the Metropolitan Division.
Like Florida, Washington is another team that had a terrible start and came on strong with a better second quarter of the season. They have, however, cooled off a bit over the past couple of weeks.
Alex Ovechkin is still a tank of a player, and a lot of their offseason moves have paid off in a big way. Darcy Kuemper has been hit-and-miss at times this season, but when he has been on his game he has masked a lot of flaws that might otherwise exist in Washington. Dylan Strome has also been one of the biggest free agent steals of the year.
The Penguins enter the week two points back of Washington in the standings, but have three games in hand. That puts them ahead of Washington by points percentage as the Penguins’ current pace puts them on track for close to 97 points, while Washington is on a 95-point pace.
After that, the Penguins wrap up the pre-All-Star game part of the season with a home game against the San Jose Sharks.
The Sharks are one of the NHL’s worst teams and have really started to struggle over the past few weeks. What the Sharks do have going for them is Erik Karlsson. After looking like his days as an elite player were finished over the past couple of years he is back to being a mega-star and one of the league’s best players. He is having one of the best offensive seasons you could ever imagine for a defenseman and looks like prime Karlsson again. He can still take over a game and is somebody the Penguins are going to have to account for on Saturday.
They also still have Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl who can hurt you at forward. It is at this point where I will repeat my point from Friday where I argue that Timo Meier could be an option for the Penguins if Ron Hextall wanted to be really bold.
Looking ahead the Sharks game is one you want to win, especially at home. Those are two points you can not let slip away. If they can then split the Florida-Washington part of the week that would give them four out of six points and put them into the All-Star break on 6-3-2 run and a 97-point pace for the season.
That is a little below where I expected them to be at this point in the season, but I will still take it when you consider the two lengthy losing streaks they had in the first half. Could be worse. Should be better.