All of a sudden the Pittsburgh Penguins are starting to piece things together. They entered this past week facing three winnable games against the New York Islanders (two) and St. Louis Blues and ended up winning all of them in regulation by a combined 14-3 margin. Their stars played great, their depth added some timely goals and they received fantastic goaltending from both Tristan Jarry and Alex Nedelkjovic.
They are now 7-1-1 in their past nine games and playing at more than a 100-point pace over the past month. They are gaining ground in the playoff race, starting to get back on track, and looking more and more like the team we expected them to be before the season began.
Now they have an extremely tough set of games coming up this week.
It all starts on Tuesday with another absolutely massive Metropolitan Division game when Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals make their first trip to Pittsburgh for this season.
The Capitals are a really difficult team to get a grasp on. They have almost no center depth, their star players — including Ovechkin — are having down years, and their power play is somehow even worse than the Penguins. They have just 15 total goals from Ovechkin, John Carlson, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie, while the 11.5 success rate of the power play is 30th in the NHL ahead of only the St. Louis Blues and Philadelphia Flyers.
Despite all of those issues they are 17-11-6, exceeding all expectations in the standings and in a strong position in the Eastern Conference playoff race. They are on a four-game winning streak entering the week, but they have still been better than expected for the season as a whole.
The key to their success — the same as every mediocre team that starts winning a lot of games. A hot goaltender. In this case, Charlie Lindgren and Hunter Shepard who have combined for a 10-3-4 record and a .926 save percentage when they play. They are just 8-8-2 with an .892 save percentage when big money goalie Darcy Kuemper plays.
The Penguins won the first meeting of the season in Washington in very impressive fashion and a win on Tuesday would not only continue their recent strong play, it would also help them continue to climb the Eastern Conference and Metropolitan Division standings.
Things get even tougher on Thursday when they travel to play the Boston Bruins, one of the NHL’s top teams.
The Bruins overall record is very impressive, but there are some flaws here that are starting to show. For one, the Bruins are an incredibly top-heavy team. A significant chunk of their offense comes from David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Charlie Coyle, and while those three have been great, they are not getting a lot of offense from the rest of the team. The Bruins are 15th team in the league in goals per game, averaging 3.20 goals per game.
While their offense has been mostly average, their defense and goaltending remains elite. They still have the league’s best 1-2 punch in goal with Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman, both of whom have save percentages significantly above the league average.
Despite the strong defensive play and goaltending, the Bruins have slowed down a bit in recent weeks. After starting the season with a 14-1-3 record through their first 18 games, the Bruins have managed to win just eight of the 17 games that have followed, posting an 8-6-3 record during that stretch. They are excellent. They are not unbeatable.
On Saturday the Penguins return home for another game against the Buffalo Sabres. The Penguins split the first two meetings, shutting out Buffalo 4-0 in Pittsburgh before letting a multiple-goal third period lead slip away during the rematch in Buffalo.
The Sabres remain one of the biggest disappointments in the NHL, entering the week with a 15-19-4 record on the season. Given how close they were to a playoff spot a year ago (just one point short) and the expectations entering the season it has been a brutal year for Buffalo across the board. The offense has taken a huge step backwards, the defense has not really progressed and they still have huge goaltending questions. They have one of the worst records in the Eastern Conference and could be in danger of slipping out of playoff contention entirely.
Overall this looks like a really challenging week on paper, but not impossible. Getting two points on Tuesday would be significant and go a long way toward really improving the Penguins playoff chances. The Buffalo game looks like one of those “you better win” games that they dropped too many times a year ago. Not only are the Sabres bad, they will be at the very end of a three-game road trip. If the Penguins can get four out of six points away from these games that would continue to put them on the right track in their playoff push.