The Pittsburgh Penguins return from the All-Star break on Tuesday night, looking to get rid of the awful stench that came from their ugly pre-break loss to the San Jose Sharks.
It will also be an opportunity to set the tone for what will hopefully be a better and more consistent second half of the 2022-23 NHL season.
It will not be an easy task to start with a visit from the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday.
Colorado is a fascinating team this season because their place in the standings is downright shocking given the way they dominated the NHL a year ago and have been one of the league’s best teams for nearly five years now.
They are in a fight just to make the playoffs based on the standings and have not had anywhere near the success we have been accustomed to seeing from. Losing Nazem Kadri in free agency has been a big loss, but the bigger issue this season has simply been one of major injuries adding up at different times.
Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, Valeri Nichushkin, Bowen Byram, Evan Rodrigues (hey, I remember him!) and Josh Manson have all missed significant time. Those are not easy players to replace, especially when combined with the Kadri departure in free agency.
But now that they are starting to get healthier, they are starting to win more.
The Avalanche went into the All-Star break having won seven of their past eight games and still boast one of the NHL’s best defensive teams. When healthy their blue line is as good as any team in the NHL, and they also found a nice replacement for Darcy Kuemper with the trade for former New York Rangers goalie Alexandar Georgiev. Both he and Pavel Francouz have save percentages over .917, and when combined with a defense that has Cale Makar, Samuel Girard, and Devon Toews leading the way you have a top-five team in goals against.
The Penguins are going to be in for a challenge when it comes to generating offense against that team.
After that, the Penguins go back out on the road for one more west coast trip with a swing through California that includes games this week in Anaheim and Los Angeles (a back-to-back situation), before going to San Jose and then returning back east for a game at the New York Islanders.
The Los Angeles Game is going to be a really tough one because that is not only a back-to-back situation on the road, they also draw the better team on the second half of it. Even if the Kings have struggled a bit recently and have major goaltending questions.
That road trip is going to be important because on paper the Penguins should be able to take care of business during a big part of their schedule where they absolutely need to collect points. But as we saw with the San Jose game before the break, nothing is a given.
The big question is going to be the availability of starting goalie Tristan Jarry. The Penguins keep saying he is day-to-day and that it is not a longer-term injury at this point, but they really need him back in the lineup. You do not want to be relying on Casey DeSmith and Dustin Tokarski right now, while the Penguins record is significantly better with Jarry in net than it is without him. Not be a small margin, either.
Jarry is the one player that can really make-or-break the second half of the regular season for them.
The bottom line, though, is this. Over the next five games the Penguins do not play a single team with a record in the top-12 of the league (even with Colorado’s recent improvement they are still below that with a nearly identical record as the Penguins) and have three games against teams in the bottom half of the league standings.
They need to take advantage of that and get wins to help re-secure that spot in the playoffs.