After a tough start to the 2023-24 NHL season things are starting to look a little better for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
They now have three forward lines that are starting to get cooking.
Erik Karlsson is starting to become an impact player.
Tristan Jarry ended up not missing much time and returned to the lineup with a shootout.
All of that resulted in a perfect West Coast road trip this past week and what is now a four-game winning streak going into the week. They are starting to look something like the team the Penguins had hope they could be.
But now things start to get real as they enter a huge week that will include three big Metropolitan Division games and then a game against the defending Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights.
The week begins on Tuesday with a road game at the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Despite spending big money again this offseason the Blue Jackets are still kind of a mess. They have no real organizational plan that is easy to figure out, they still have a bad goalie situation, and they embarrassed themselves over the summer with the whole Mike Babcock experience. There is some intriguing young talent there, and even some interesting veteran talent with Patrik Laine, Johnny Gaudreau and Zach Werenski, but it is still a team that does not really do anything particularly well and has flaws all over the roster. The Blue Jackets will be entering the game having lost nine of their previous 10 games and ranking near the bottom of every major category in the league. This is not a good team.
After playing in Columbus, the Penguins return home for a game on Thursday against one of the best teams in the league, the New Jersey Devils.
This might be the right time to catch the Devils because they have been dealing with some pretty significant injuries.
Their best player, Jack Hughes, is out on a week-to-week basis, while their other top center, Nico Hischier, has not played since Oct. 27 due to an upper-body injury. If neither player is back in the lineup for the Devils on Thursday that would be a lot of talent out of the lineup and make the lineup a lot less imposing.
But it is still a good lineup with some players that can make life miserable for you if you do not bring your A game.
Jesper Bratt is having a wonderful season offensively while Tyler Toffoli has been a huge steal to add to their forward dept. The Devils enter the week with a 7-5-1 record but have also lost three of their past four games.
Then the weekend arrives where the Penguins have a tough back-to-back situation against two more of the league’s best teams, traveling to Carolina on Saturday night before returning home on Sunday to play the Golden Knights.
After a slow start of their own the Hurricanes are starting to get back on track, especially now that they are getting healthier with the returns of Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov,
While the Hurricanes do not really have any one player that is going to keep you awake at night in preparing for them, they do have one of the deepest and most rock-solid lineups in the NHL. Just about everybody in the lineup is an an above average to All-Star level performer, and some of their young players are really starting to put it all together. Martin Necas, Seth Jarvis and even Jesperi Kotkaniemi are starting to find the net quite a bit.
The big weakness for Carolina so far this season is in goal where all three goalies they have used have a save percentage below .900, while Frederik Andersen is currently sidelined.
The Sunday home game against Vegas is also going to be challenging because not only are the Golden Knights the defending Stanley Cup champions, they are off to one of the best starts in the entire NHL this season. They look every bit as good as the team that won it all a year ago, and while their skaters are all playing great they are also getting exceptional goaltending from both Logan Thompson and Adin Hill.
Overall, this is a tough week.
You have four games in seven days, three of which are against Stanley Cup contenders, with a back-to-back (with travel) thrown in. The only positive to the latter point is Vegas will also be playing the second half of a back-to-back (with travel) on Sunday evening.
At a minimum you would like to see at least a split here, and perhaps even five points. Beat Columbus and find a way to get at least a 1-1-1 stretch out of the end of the week and keep building on that. Anything more than that would be a bonus against that stretch of games. It all has to start with a win against Columbus though. That is the game you do not want to lose at all.