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The Week Ahead: Building on a strong start

The Pittsburgh Penguins have a two-game road trip this week against two very similarly built opponents.

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

Even though the Pittsburgh Penguins opened the 2023-24 regular season with a disappointing home-opening loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, they managed to bounce back in a big way with an extremely impressive weekend that featured back-to-back wins against the Washington Capitals and Calgary Flames.

In the former, the Penguins played one of the most complete games they have played in years by systematically shutting down the Capitals and cruising to a 4-0 win. The power play scored a couple of goals, the goaltending was strong, the defensive play was even stronger and they did pretty much everything right to completely dominate a divisional rival.

The next night was not quite as impressive in a 5-2 win over Calgary, but given that the Penguins played on the road the night before and the Flames were a completely rested team you will take those two points. The top-two lines continued to carry the offense, the goaltending was strong again, and they did what they needed to do for a perfect weekend.

The Penguins go back on the road this week for a pair of games at the Detroit Red Wings (Wednesday) and at the St. Louis Blues (Saturday).

The Red Wings are an interesting team because even though they still like to talk about how they are in the middle of a rebuild, the time has arrived that they need to start showing some progress for anybody to still have any faith in Steve Yzerman’s plan. He has been there long enough and spent enough money over the past two offseasons that the playoffs should be a realistic goal for them this season.

After spending big last summer on players like Andrew Copp, David Perron, and Ville Husso, the Red Wings came back this summer and followed that up by acquiring J.T. Compher and Alex DeBrincat. At forward, the Red Wings do boast a pretty deep lineup with a lot of forwards that should be capable of scoring. Dylan Larkin, Lucas Raymond, DeBrincat, Copp, Perron, Robby Fabbri and Daniel Sprong are all part of a top-nine that does possess a lot of skill and will definitely keep the Penguins’ defense busy.

DeBrincat is off to an especially strong start with three goals in his first two games. He is a two-time 40-goal scorer (and has scored at a 40-goal pace three times in his career) that brings a significant game-changing presence to the top of their lineup.

Their biggest weakness is probably on the back end with their defense and goaltending.

Moritz Seider is the defenseman that has the potential to be a top-tier player, but the first two years of his career have been a little inconsistent.

Husso, meanwhile, has not really been the player they expected when they signed him in free agency with a sub-.900 save percentage in his first 58 appearances with the team.

The Red Wings were one of the many reasons the Penguins ended up missing the playoffs a year ago, winning two out of three games including one where the Penguins let a 4-0 lead slip away.

The Penguins continue their brief road trip on Saturday when they go into St. Louis to face a team that is very similar to the Red Wings in its roster construction.

At one time the Blues were one of the fiercest defensive teams in the NHL, and rode that all the way to a Stanley Cup championship in 2019. But in the years since the Blues’ defense has been ripped apart by the salary cap, free agency, trades and some declining players resulting in a team that is now one of the worst defensive teams in the league.

Add in a bad goaltending in Jordan Binnington — who is also one of the most easily rattled players in the league — and you have a team that finished in 27th in terms of goals against last season and does not seem to be much better in that regard this season.

What the Blues do have is offense.

This is a sneaky good offensive team that has a lot of high-end talent at forward. Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas are their two young cornerstones, while Pavel Buchnevich has proven to be a steal after coming over in a trade a couple of years ago from the New York Rangers. Jakub Vrana, Kevin Hayes and Brandon Saad help add to that forward depth.

Overall these are two very similar matchups for the Penguins.

Each has the type of forward group that can challenge the Penguins’ defense and goaltending, while neither has an overly imposing defense or goaltending situation of their own.

Given that, as well as the fact neither team is one that I would have as a playoff team this season, getting three or four points out of this week should be a very realistic and manageable expectation for a team that you do expect to make the playoffs.