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The week ahead: Back on the road and a big rivalry game for Penguins

The Pittsburgh Penguins have two road games before returning home before another big rivalry game this weekend.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Penguins have reached the first quarter mark of the 2023-24 NHL season and they are still trying to find some consistency.

There have been some issues holding leads, there has been some inconsistency with depth scoring, and the power play has continued to be a thorn in their side. The Penguins are 10-10-0 and still on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, which is a frustrating position given how many points and games they have left on the table by blowing games against Chicago, Anaheim and Buffalo.

The Penguins did rebound from Friday’s disappointing loss with a hard fought, tough win against Toronto on Saturday, and they now have to go on the road as they try to build some momentum off of that win.

The week starts on Tuesday with a road game at the Nashville Predators.

The Predators are one of those teams that seems to be stuck in the middle between contending and rebuilding, without having a direction on which way it wants to go.

The overall roster is not great, and over the past year they have shed significant salary and talent from the roster in the name of clearing salary cap space and collecting future assets and draft picks.

But they still kept players like Filip Forsberg, Roman Josi and Juuse Saros, and then spend the offseason adding veterans like Ryan O’Reilly and Gustav Nyquist on long-term deals.

Despite their flaws and shortcomings, the Predators are entering the week on a roll having won five games in a row and scoring 23 goals in the process.

Forsberg is having an especially strong season after having been limited to just 50 games a year ago.

Keeping him contained will be the primary focus for the Penguins defensively.

Saros is not having his best season in goal, but he is always capable of stealing a game on any night.

Nashville will also present an opportunity for the Penguins power play to maybe get something going. The Predators are successfully killing off just 72.7 percent of their penalties this season, a success rate that places them 28th in the NHL.

After playing in Nashville, the Penguins go on the road on Thursday at a Tampa Bay team that is still loaded with talent and now has one of its biggest superstars back in the lineup.

The Lightning did not have starting goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy for the first 20 games of the season and managed to hold their own without their franchise netminder. The fact they won as many games as they did while getting sub-.900 goaltending from Jonas Johansson and Matt Tomkins is a strong testament to how talented this roster still is.

Their stars are still dominating offensively.

They already have five players with at least 20 points, including Nikita Kucherov who has 35 points (15 goals, 20 assists) in 20 games.

Vasilevskiy made his season debut over the weekend, stopping 22 of 24 shots in his debut.

The Penguins have actually played pretty well against Tampa Bay in recent years, going 4-2-0 against them over the past two years, including sweeping the regular season series a year ago (3-0-0).

The Penguins are also getting Tampa Bay at what could be a good point in their schedule, playing the Lighnting in their first game back home after a three-game road trip and as their third game in four nights.

After playing in Tampa Bay, the Penguins return home on Saturday to open up a home-and-home set with cross-state rival the Philadelphia Flyers.

The Flyers have been one of the biggest surprises in the NHL this season, exceeding all expectations and actually playing really competitive hockey.

The biggest factor in their early season success has been getting some key players back healthy this season, specifically center Sean Couturier and winger Cam Atkinson. Both players missed the entirety of the 2022-23 season, and both are back and playing outstanding hockey this season. Especially Couturier who once again looks like a bonafide top-line, two-way center.

Head coach John Tortorella has his team playing hard, and even though their overall talent level might be lacking on paper he is squeezing every single ounce of talent out of them that he can. I actually think this is the exact type of roster and situation where Tortorella can be at his best.

This is not the easiest schedule for the Penguins, but it is still a stretch where they should reasonably be expected to get at least four points. Nashville is a game they should win. Philadelphia is a game they should. Getting two points in Tampa Bay would be a nice bonus.