Even with a pair of overtime losses that exposed some consistent problems this past week, it was still a mostly successful stretch of games for the Pittsburgh Penguins. They collected four out of a possible six points against Philadelphia, Vancouver and Carolina and stole a couple of points in games where they got off to terrible starts.
The starts against Vancouver and Carolina are a concern, as is their continued inability to perform on the power play or play in 3-on-3 overtime. The latter two areas are problems that have existed all season and continue to cost them important points in a tight Eastern Conference playoff race.
Even if their power play was simply bad as opposed to one of the league’s worst, they might have an extra three or four points right now.
If they could get out of their own way in overtime they might have a couple more.
Those two areas might be what ultimately keeps the Penguins out of the playoffs for a second year in a row. They are also areas where you would expect the Penguins to be at least pretty decent given their top-end talent. Yet here we are.
We are also here with another tough week of games that gets off to a rare start on Monday.
The Penguins will have a rare Monday afternoon home game with a 1 p.m. ET puck drop against the Seattle Kraken. This game was originally supposed to be a 6 p.m. ET puck drop, but it was moved to accomadate the Pittsburgh Steelers playoff game against the Buffalo Bills at 4:30 p.m. ET after it was moved from Sunday due to a blizzard in Buffalo. It probably helped that Kraken general manager Ron Francis is also a Steelers fan.
No matter when it starts, this is going to be a tough game as the Kraken are one of the hottest teams in the NHL right now. They got off to a very disappointing start after making the playoffs — and winning a round — a year ago, winning just eight of their first 27 games, But in the 15 games since then the Kraken are 11-1-3, and come into Monday riding a nine-game winning streak.
They are rolling.
Offensively the Kraken have taken a big step backwards fromo where they were a year ago, going from sixth in the league in goals scored all the way down to 25th in the league in goals scored. There has been a significant shooting percentage regression involved in that decline, while young star Matty Beniers has not had a great second season.
Even during the current winning streak the offense has not really been the driving force behind the success. It has been the team’s play defensively, and especially their play goaltending with Joey Daccord taking over the No. 1 spot and playing some pretty dominant hockey.
Even with the team investing heavily in the position during its expansion year, goaltending was a big Achilles heel the past two years for the Kraken as Philipp Grubauer and Chris Driedger were significant disappointments. Daccord, who was signed for almost nothing and an afterthought coming into the season, is the player to all of a sudden solidify the position.
Goaltending. You just never know.
After hosting Seattle the Penguins will be going on the road for a couple of games that might be home games away from home.
That starts on Saturday night (following four days off) with a trip to take on the defending Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights. The Penguins might actually be catching them at the right time.
After starting the year with an 11-0-1 record that had them looking like a serious contender to repeat as champions, the Golden Knights are just 13-14-4 in the 31 games that have followed. In other words, they have been pretty mediocre this season for more time than they have been good.
They are also dealing with some significant injury concerns. Already playing without William Karlsson and Shea Theodore, the Golden Knights also placed top-line center Jack Eichel on Injured Reserve this week. That is a lot of big-time talent out of the lineup. They also have a staggering lack of depth on the left side of their forward group.
Adin Hill has picked up where he left off in the playoffs in goal for the most part, but this is a team that has some flaws that the Penguins might be playing at the right time.
Then a week from Monday their brief two-game West Coast trip takes them to Arizona to play the very surprising Arizona Coyotes. Arizona entered the season with almost no expectations, but it has managed to hang around in the Western Conference playoff race thanks almost entirely to the stunning play of starting goalie Connor Ingram. Arizona has a potential young star in Pittsburgh native Logan Cooley, but his career is off to a slow start offensively. It has also surrounded him with a pretty solid group of veterans led by Clayton Keller, Nick Schmaltz and Lawson Crouse. The Coyotes also added a lot of legitimate NHL talent this offseason with the acquisitions of Jason Zucker, Alexander Kerfoot, Matt Dumba and Sean Durzi.
Ingram is the big story here, however, as he enters the week with a .919 save percentage and a 15-8-0 record in his 26 appearances. He has been outstanding and one of the biggest surprises in the first half of the season.
The Penguins won the first meeting of the season by a 4-2 margin in Pittsburgh back in mid-December.
On paper this looks like a tough week for the Penguins, but it is also one that is very manageable. The toughest of the three games might be the Seattle game on Monday, but that is going to be like a 10 a.m. ET start time for the Kraken. They are also getting Vegas it what might be the right time while Arizona should be a winnable game in what will almost certainly be like a home game for the Penguins (as it usually is in Arizona no matter what arena they are playing in).
Getting another four points this week seems like the minimum requirement, with five or even six points being ideal. It is always expecting a lot to expect three consecutive wins, especially with a team that is already collecting a lot of points over the past month-and-a-half, but these are more points they absolutely need to get. They can not have slow starts like they had against Vancouver and Carolina, they need the power play to make some sort of an impact, and if they do get to overtime it would be nice to see them actually control play for a change given their talent level.