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The Week Ahead: Penguins need to continue building momentum that started this weekend

This three-game road trip this week will be significant.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

If the Pittsburgh Penguins do end up securing a playoff spot for a 17th consecutive season (and even with their recent issues I do still believe they will) this past weekend might be the stretch of games we look back on and say, “that is when things started to turn around.”

The Penguins not only got four much needed points with their wins over the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning, they got them in a much-needed way.

By playing really well.

They got the results and the process right,

I know Saturday’s game was frustrating to go to overtime against a bad Blues team, but they completely dominated that hockey game for 62 minutes and only ended up in overtime because St. Louis scored two completely fluke goals. Jordan Binnington also played the game of his season to keep that thing respectable.

They followed that up on Sunday by absolutely taking it to a Tampa Bay team that is still one of the league’s best and saw a bunch of players break out of their extended goal droughts. It was all very necessary.

Over the past two weeks we have started to see somewhat of an upward trend in the Penguins’ process in terms of how they are controlling games. The results have not always been there, but maybe they are starting to come?

Over the past six games the Penguins’ 5-on-5 expected goal shares have checked in at 70.1, 36.9, 56.0, 32.6, 71.3 and 51.0. The two exceptions were the New Jersey and Edmonton games that were .... rough. But the other four? Exactly the type of thing you want to see. It was not getting the results in those two Islanders games — where they were the better team by a dramatic margin — that hurt. If they win those two games they have four extra points, are sitting at 71 points in the standing, are clear of the playoff bubble, they would have completely buried the Islanders’ playoff chances, and would probably be within striking distance of the third spot in the Metropolitan Division. The entire season and the outlook of it would be completely different. We would not be discussing “will the Penguins make the playoffs” or “should the Penguins actually be sellers at the trade deadline this year!?”

That is why those two games sting so much. But the Penguins started to make up for that with the big wins this weekend and now they go on the road this week for a three-game road trip through Nashville, Tampa Bay, and Florida.

The Penguins do have a significant number of games remaining against teams currently out of the playoff picture, and two of them take place this week (Nashville and Florida).

The first is on Tuesday in Nashville against a Predators team that is not only outside of the playoff picture in the Western Conference, but is also starting to sell off players and change its organization, General manager David Poile is retiring after this season, former head coach Barry Trotz is replacing him, and now the trades are starting. Forwards Nino Niederreiter and Tanner Jeannot have already been traded for draft picks.

Those trades happened even as Nashville has started to string some wins together recently. They have gone through a bit of a goal scoring surge over the past two weeks, but that has largely come against potential lottery teams and they are one of the lowest scoring teams in the NHL this season.

The one thing they do have is a goalie in Juuse Saros that can completely change a game. That will be the biggest obstacle for the Penguins in Nashville.

After that, they go to Tampa Bay for a rematch against the Lightning. That will be by far the toughest game of the week. The Penguins have typically played Tampa Bay very well in the Mike Sullivan era, but they are going to see a significantly better and more motivated team on Thursday as compared to what we saw on Sunday evening in Pittsburgh. The Lightning will have Andrei Vasilevskiy in goal instead of Brian Elliott, they will be rested (unlike both teams on Sunday), and they will have a new forward in Jeannot in the lineup. That is going to be a tough game to win.

Then two days later they complete this road trip with the Florida Panthers. The Panthers have simply not figured it out this year and are by far one of the most disappointing teams in the NHL, going from a four goals per game juggernaut that won the Presidents Trophy (easily I might add) a year ago, to a team that is on the outside of the Stanley Cup Playoff picture and sitting pretty far back in terms of points percentage. They can still score goals, but they can not defend at all and Sergei Bobrovsky is having a regression year in net after bouncing back in a big way a year ago. That is game the Penguins need to win, not only to get the two points for themselves, but to put even more distance between themselves and another potential Eastern Conference Wild Card contender.

If the Penguins can get four points this week, they are in good shape. Tampa Bay will be the tough game, but the other two games need to be wins.