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The week ahead: Penguins have opportunity for big — and important — week

NHL: DEC 18 Wild at Penguins Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If the Pittsburgh Penguins are going to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs they have quite an uphill fight ahead of them. They have a great opportunity to start climbing that hill coming out of the holiday break this week with a couple of games against a divisional opponent that are sandwiched around a game against a struggling Western Conference team that already beat the Penguins earlier this season.

The Penguins enter the week in seventh place in the Metropolitan Division and in 11th place in the Eastern Conference Wild Card race by points percentage (.531). There is still a pretty decent gap between them and a playoff spot, and if you figure it will take a minimum of 96 points to secure a playoff spot (usually a safe bet) that means the Penguins need to collect 62 points over their remaining 50 games. That would be a points percentage of .620 the rest of the way — or a 101-point pace.

That should not be considered an outrageous pace or something that is too difficult to reach. That is basically a 30-18-2 record, or something in that vicinity.

The good news is the Penguins have at least started to collect some points over the past couple of weeks to start their push, even if it has been through losing games in overtime or shootouts. They are 6-3-4 since Nov. 25, gaining at least one point in 10 of their past 13 games. That has been a .615 points percentage during that stretch, which is just off the pace they will need the rest of the way to get themselves back into playoff contention.

They have a chance to really make a move this week with two games against one of the teams they are chasing within the division — the New York Islanders.

The Penguins open the week on Long Island on Wednesday night with a game against the Islanders, and wrap up the week on New Years Eve with a home game against them.

The Islanders are having their typically unimpressive-but-somehow-impressive season.

Their roster? Completely lacking in star power, especially offensively. It is an older group that outside of Mathew Barzal, Noah Dobson and starting goalie Ilya Sorokin does not really have a lot of standout players.

They are 15th in goals scored per game, 18th in goals against per game and have some of the most underwhelming underlying numbers in the league. They have also developed a baffling knack for blowing significant leads in the third period of games.

Despite all of that mediocrity in their numbers they enter the week in second place in the Metropolitan Division with a seven-point lead over the Penguins, while the Penguins have one game in hand.

So what is it that the Islanders do well? The goaltending and the power play. Both Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov have save percentages that are substantially above the league average at .914 or better, while the power play is in the top-10 league-wide. Those two performances are completely carrying the team.

This is a big opportunity for the Penguins to gain some serious ground on a team ahead of them, and it should be a favorable matchup on paper. The Penguins’ penalty kill has played well for most of the season and should be able to match the Islanders’ power play, while the Penguins should have an edge when it comes to 5-on-5 play. There is also a big opportunity for the Penguins much-maligned power play to break out of its season-long funk against an Islanders penalty kill unit that is 32nd in the league in terms of success rate.

In between those two games the Penguins will host the Blues on Saturday night.

The Blues won the first meeting of the season in St. Louis, but it is not expecting too much to expect the Penguins to win this game. The Blues have been completely mediocre for most of the season and recently went through a coaching change, replacing Craig Berube with Drew Bannister. While they have gone 4-1-0 since the coaching change entering the week, the Blues remain an extremely unimpressive team defensively and do not have any consistent goaltending.

The Penguins are also getting a scheduling edge for this game. While they will be rested and waiting in Pittsburgh for the Blues to arrive on Saturday, St. Louis will be playing the second half of a back-to-back (after playing Colorado the night before) and its third game in four nights.

Realistically speaking, four points this week should be a reasonable and bare minimum expectation given the opponents and the matchups. But the Penguins need to start getting greedy and feasting on the opportunities when they present themselves. Getting three wins here is not only possible, it would go a long way toward getting them back into serious playoff contention.