The Pittsburgh Penguins had a tough four-game stretch this past week and ended up coming away with a split that was completed with a strong win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Sunday night.
They have another tough stretch of games ahead this week that begins with another big Metropolitan Division test on Wednesday night in the always popular night before Thanksgiving game.
That is when the Penguins get their first game of the season against the New York Rangers.
This year’s Rangers team has a new head coach in old friend Peter Laviolette, but they still look like the same old Rangers that have been a pain in the butt for the Penguins.
Mediocre 5-on-5 play, disappointing young players, a lethal power play, and great goaltending.
They are sticking with the same old recipe, even with a new coach.
For the season the Rangers are a middle-of-the-pack, to even slightly below average team during even-strength play. They have only outscored their opponents by two goals at 5-on-5, while also once again being dramatically out-chanced. The Artemi Panarin line is the only one that seems to be doing any damage, while they are still get extremely underwhelming play from the young kids.
Former No. 1 pick Alexis Lafreniere is showing at least a little something with 11 points in 15 games, but Kaapo Kakko is stuck on two points (one goal, one assist) while Filip Chytil has zero goals in 10 games and is currently out of the lineup.
The Rangers are also currently without their top defenseman — and one of the top overall defenders in the league — as Adam Fox is sidelined with a lower-body injury.
For most teams all of those pedestrian numbers — and injuries — would spell trouble.
For the Rangers, it is business as usual and it makes them incredibly frustrating to try and play against. Mainly because their power play is clicking at a better than 33 percent rate, while they are also getting outstanding goaltending from both Igor Shesterkin and Jonathan Quick. The power play success and Shesterkin playing well are not new developments, and even though Shesterkin’s save percentage is a little lower thaan you might expect from him (.912) he is still one of the top goalies in the league. Quick’s performance, however, is a little more shocking. He looked completetely washed up over the past few years in Los Angeles but has been off to a tremendous start for the Rangers with a 4-0-1 record and a shockingly high .928 save percentage.
The Penguins should get Shesterkin on Wednesday.
After that, the Penguins go back on the road on Friday night against the Buffalo Sabres to kick off another set of weekend back-to-back games.
The Penguins just saw the Sabres a little more than a week ago and came away with an impressive 4-0 win.
The Sabres have been — for me — one of the biggest disappointments in the league this season. After a mini-breakthrough performance a year ago that saw the climb to within one point of a playoff spot, I thought this was going to be their year for an even bigger step forward and jump into the playoffs.
So far, it has not happened.
The goaltending and defensive play has predictably been one of their biggest issues, but their once-dynamic offense has also taken a big step backwards as they enter the week averaging just 2.83 goals per game, a mark that is 24th in the NHL. They were one of the highest scoring teams in the league a year ago.
All of that leaves them with just eight wins in their first 18 games.
Just as they will on Wednesday with a Fox-less Rangers team, the Penguins are also catching the Sabres at a time where they are without one of their best players in Tage Thompson. Thompson is out on a week-to-week basis with a lower-body injury.
The Penguins then return home on Saturday for the second half of the back-to-back when they play the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Toronto has been a bit inconsistent so far this season but is starting to get things together over the past couple of weeks.
It is a game where both teams will be playing the second half of a back-to-back with travel involved.
Toronto’s big-four of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander are all off to great starts this season, with Nylander in particular playing outstanding hockey as he plays for a new contract. His price tag is skyrocketing with every game as he continues to put up huge numbers.
Overall the Maple Leafs are one of the highest-scoring teams in the league (eight overall in goals per game) with a tremendous power play.
This is going to be another challenging week for the Penguins, but it is still time for them to win a couple of big games against good teams. Beating Vegas on Sunday was a nice win, especially on the heels of ugly losses against Metropolitan Division rivals New Jersey and Carolina, and they need to build on that this week.
It should be a reasonable expectation to get at least two wins this week. The Rangers can be had given their sub-par 5-on-5 play and injury to Fox, and splitting the weekend back-to-back should not be asking too much.
Get four points and that would give you an 8-3-0 record so far in November. That would be a strong start to the month after an underwhelming October.