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The Week Ahead: More tests ahead for Penguins after tough stretch

Pittsburgh Penguins v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Penguins are going to reach the halfway point of the 2022-23 NHL season this week and we have seen two very different versions of the team.

There are some positives and areas of strength.

They are some glaring weaknesses and significant concerns.

We have seen them look very good for extended periods of time (4-0-1 to start the year; 14-2-2 through most of November and December), and also very bad for extended periods of time (a seven-game losing streak in late October-early November; the most recent six-game losing streak that ended on Sunday night with the win in Arizona).

The one thing that consistently stands out this season is that when the top two lines produce, the Penguins win a lot of hockey games.

When they do not, they have virtually no chance.

And over the past two weeks since the Christmas break we have seen a lot of the latter. Combine that with significant injuries and absences on defense (Kris Letang and Jeff Petry), and an injury to Tristan Jarry and you have a recipe for trouble.

The Penguins lost six games in a row, collected just two points in the process, and left a lot of points on the table. Even more discouraging than the results was the process behind the results. For most of the year, even during the earlier losing streak, the Penguins have been one of the top 5-on-5 teams in the league in terms of goals for and against, as well as a lot of underlying possession numbers. That disappeared during the recent streak as they were well below a 50 percent share of pretty much every shot attempt and scoring chance metric, and were outscored 11-15 during 5-on-5 play. The power play also fell apart after a strong surge with Letang (and Petry) being out of the lineup.

There were a lot of problems.

Fortunately, they were able to salvage the week with two points against Arizona. It was not a dominant performance, but they did what they needed to do.

Now we look ahead to this week. It starts with another game that should — SHOULD — be an opportunity to get some more points when former friend Jim Rutherford and the Vancouver Canucks make a visit to Pittsburgh.

The Canucks are, in my mind, one of the most disappointing teams in the league this season. Given the way they played after Bruce Boudreau took over a year ago I thought they had a shot to be a playoff team in the Pacific Division. But nearing the halfway point of the season they have been a mess. Elias Pettersson and Bo Horvat are having strong seasons, but everything else about this team has fallen apart.

The defense? It is lousy. The goaltending? It has been even worse. They are also saddled with bad contracts up and down the roster, while everybody involved has to be having major buyer’s remorse about the J.T. Miller extension. He seems miserable, the team is not happy with his play, and they probably missed a prime opportunity a year ago to really cash in on a trade.

After that, the schedule gets tougher.

The Winnipeg Jets visit Pittsburgh on Friday night with one of the league’s best records.

I am still not entirely sold on this Jets team.

The Penguins did win the first meeting of the season in Winnipeg, 3-0, but it was not an easy game. Winnipeg has the ultimate X-Factor in starting goalie Connor Hellebuyck, and he is having a magnificent year. When he is at his best, he is a game-changer. So far this season, he has been at his best. The Jets’ roster is very top-heavy with Kyle Connor, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and Mark Scheifele leading the way at forward, and Hellebuyck stealing games in goal.

The one big difference for Winnipeg this season has been the emergence of Josh Morrissey on defense.

The lack of a top-pairing defender has been a big Achilles Heel for them the past couple of years, but Morrissey is having a breakout year that has seen him be one of the top scoring blue-liners in the league. I do not know that this is a great roster, but they have some top-end forwards and an elite goalie. Those two things can take a team a long way and mask a lot of flaws that exist elsewhere on a roster.

It also helps that they are no longer behind held back by Paul Maurice behind the bench, Wild how as soon as he left Winnipeg their success turned around, and as soon as he arrived in Florida they went from a Presidents’ Trophy to painfully average.

Things get even tougher the next night when the Penguins have to travel to Carolina for a back-to-back.

Not only is that a back-to-back, it is a back-to-back with travel and also against two of the best teams in the league. As if that is not enough, the second part of that back-to-back is against the one team that has given the Penguins the most struggles this season. I know every game against Carolina has been a close one-goal game, with two of them even going to overtime, but the Hurricanes have clearly been the better team in all three games and their style of play definitely gives the Penguins some problems. The Hurricanes are also going to be fully healthy this season and have Max Pacioretty back for the first time in the head-to-head meetings.

This is going to be a big test for the Penguins this week and if they can get even three points out of that I am going to look at it as a successful this week.

Beating Vancouver is a “should” win game.

But that Winnipeg-Carolina back-to-back is going to be the big test. Given the way the Penguins are playing right now, and if they still do not have Letang and/or Petry back (not to mention Jarry), the defense is going to have its hands full.