The past week did not go particularly well for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It is only going to get more difficult this week.
After losing back-to-back games to the Detroit Red Wings and St. Louis Blues, the Penguins return home for a four-game homestand that kicks off this week with a couple of Stanley Cup contenders and another team that is rapidly improving.
This past week was especially ugly for the Penguins as they allowed 10 goals two teams that failed to make the playoffs a year ago and may not factor into the postseason this year, either. The bottom-six has been non-existent offensively, the power play still has a passive mentality, Tristan Jarry has not been great and the bottom defense pair has been a mess no matter what duo they use.
There are problems. Lots of them.
The Penguins are not going to have much time to fix them because with the games they have sitting in front of them a disappointing start could quickly turn into a brutal start.
The week begins on Tuesday with a home game against the Dallas Stars that is going to be an extraordinarily tough matchup.
The Stars were in the Western Conference Finals this past season and are my pick to actually win the Stanley Cup this year. It is a team that does not have many weaknesses. They boast one of the league’s best top lines in Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz and Joe Pavelski, have a young emerging star in Wyatt Johnston, added a couple of strong veteran additions this offseason in Matt Duchene and Craig Smith and still have the duo of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn on the roster. It is as deep of a forward group as you will find in the NHL.
Things do not get any easier the further down the roster you go.
The blue line has a bonafide No. 1 defender in Miro Heiskanen that can excel in all three zones, some really promising young defenders in Thomas Harley and Nils Lundkvist, and then one of the league’s best goalies in Jake Oettinger to back all of that up.
All of that has helped them get off to a 3-0-1 start, with their only defeat coming in a shootout against the defending Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights. The only thing you can maybe point to as a negative with Dallas’ start is the offense is off to a slow start (though it really had a breakout game in its most recent outing against Philadelphia) and that three of its first four games have gone beyond regulation.
But the potential for a brutal matchup is definitely on the table.
It will not get an easier on Thursday when another Stanley Cup contender comes to town in the Colorado Avalanche.
Now, to be fair, the Penguins actually had a ton of success against Colorado a year ago by sweeping the season series, including one of their most complete efforts of the season in a 5-2 win at Colorado. But this team is one of the best in the NHL as well, and its defense is where most of its strength sits. Everybody always focusses on Colorado’s skilled group of forwards (and they are incredible) but the Avalanche have the best defense in the league with Cale Makar, Devon Toews, Sam Girard and Bowen Byram leading the top-four. Makar is arguably one of the three-best players in hockey, and forward Nathan MacKinnon is also probably in that top-five.
What makes the Avalanche even more dangerous than perhaps even the Stanley Cup winning team of two years ago is that this version of the Avalanche seems to have found a franchise goalie in Alexandar Georgiev. The former Rangers backup has excelled since joining the Avalanche and is off to a great start this season with a 5-0-0 record with a .943 save percentage.
Things only get marginally easier from there on Saturday when the Ottawa Senators come into town.
Ottawa has been one of the most impressive offensive teams in the league so far this season, and it is not surprising given the talent at the top of the roster. The Senators’ rebuild is finally started to bare fruit, and the top of that lineup is loaded with talent. Tim Stutzle is rapidly emerging into a superstar, Brady Tkachuk is just now entering his prime years and a bonafide top-line talent, while Claude Giroux and Vladimir Tarasenko are showing they both still have a lot of offense still left in the tank.
The Senators also boast an incredibly talented defensive unit with Thomas Chabot, Jake Sanderson and Jakob Chychrun all being capable of impacting the game offensively from the blue line.
The only big question for the Senators is whether or not free agent goalie addition Joonas Korpisalo is good enough to consistently solve that problem this season.
Overall, this is a brutal schedule, and if the Penguins play the way they did this past week there is a very real possibility they could lose all three games and find themselves off to a 2-6-0 start. That would be very problematic and take the wind out of the sails after an encouraging offseason.
Now, I do not think that is going to happen. I would expect the Penguins to have received a pretty big wakeup call from head coach Mike Sullivan after a pretty bad showing over the previous two games. I think they can put together enough of an effort to split these first two games against Dallas and Colorado, and then hopefully get a big conference win on Saturday. If they can do that that should be considered a successful week given the competition. But this is definitely going to be their first big test of the season and it is even more important for them to pass it based on where they are starting the week from in the standings.