When it comes to the Pittsburgh Penguins current level of play it probably all depends on what time frame you want to look at. Over the past month they have one of the best records in the Eastern Conference and have climbed back into serious playoff contention. That is good.
But they have also collected their fair share of loser points and most recently have left a lot of points on the table by losing five of their past eight games (and three of their past four games). That includes a couple of tough home losses to Washington and Buffalo, and then Saturday’s game where they let a 2-0 lead with 15 minutes to play turn into a regulation defeat. That is bad.
They have bad starts. Bad finishes. Dominant middles. Mostly strong 5-on-5 play and more bad power play action. Some of that is good and some of that is bad.
All of it tends to balance itself out and leave them in their current position — right in the middle of the standings and on the playoff bubble.
It would be in their best interest to finish the first half of the season strong as they go into the All-Star break because they are about to get a really condensed schedule in the second half.
That means a big week this week. That week starts on Monday night with a road game against a surprisingly competitive Arizona Coyotes team.
The Coyotes are hanging around in the Western Conference playoff race due in large part to a great season from goalie Connor Ingram.
Arizona is not going to score a lot, but Ingram has done a great job keeping them in games with a .919 save percentage. When he is the goalie of record they are an impressive 16-9-1 while he gives them a legitimate chance to win almost every time he starts. They are only 6-10-1 when Karel Vejmelka is the goalie of record.
Their offense mostly runs through Clayton Keller, who is having another big year offensively and on pace for more than 75 points. He is the one player in their lineup you always have to account for. The Penguins won the first meeting of the season in Pittsburgh, 4-2, in a game where they finally snapped their early season power play drought. They could use another big game from their power play on Monday.
After playing in Arizona the Penguins return home for a tough back-to-back on Friday night and Saturday night against the Florida Panthers and Montreal Canadiens.
Florida is going to be a huge test as part of that back-to-back, and it is probably helpful they are getting that game as the first part of it. Because they will need fresh legs to have a chance in that game. The Panthers have been one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference but are riding a four-game losing streak entering the week.
The Panthers still boast one of the league’s most dangerous offensive lineups, and it is Sam Reinhart leading them this season. He is having a career year (with some great timing in a contract year) and has already matched his career high in goals (33) and is on pace to shatter his previous career high in points. Matthew Tkachuk is also starting to finally heat up after a shockingly slow start to the season in terms of his goal-scoring.
The Panthers won the first meeting of the season, 3-1, in another game where the power play failed in some big opportunities, including a late-game chance with an opportunity to tie the game.
The Penguins complete the second half of the back-to-back (and their first half schedule) the next night at home against Montreal. It will be their second game of the season with Montreal after winning an extended shootout back in December.
The Canadiens are still going through their rebuild, but have managed to stay competitive in most games thanks mostly to some decent goaltending. It is really the only thing they do at an above average rate because their offensive and defensive rankings are all among the worst in the league. But all three of their goalies (Sam Montembeault, Jake Allen and Caydn Primeau) are all around the league average mark, which is pretty impressive considering the roster and defense in front of them.
The Montreal game and the Arizona game are the two games the Penguins have to have this week. Getting four points out of four points in those games is a must, whether they come in regulation, overtime, shootout or whatever. The Florida game sandwiched between those two is the one you would like to have, but acknowledge it is by far the toughest of the three games.
Four points this week at a minimum is a must. Anything less than that is a disappointment and ends the first half on a down note, especially given how much better things have gotten overall over the past month in terms of the standings. You still have an opportunity to stack some points and gain some ground here. Can not let it slip away.