The problem with trying to dig yourself out of an early season hole is that it leaves you with almost no margin for error the rest of the way. The Pittsburgh Penguins have spent the past month winning games at a reasonably high level. Entering the week they are 8-3-1 in their past 12 games, and since Nov. 25 are 10-5-4, which would be a 103-point pace over 82 games.
That is fantastic.
But it has not really made a significant dent in their playoff push, and it still leaves them on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture as we approach the halfway point of the season. Losses to Washington (terrible first period) and Buffalo (great play, bad puck luck) took four potential points away that could have really helped their cause. If they did not put themselves in a position where they were buried so far down the standings, losses like the past two are easier to accept. When you are fighting for every point possible in a sense of desperation, it becomes a problem.
It is also a problem when you are facing a week like the Penguins are facing this week.
It opens on Monday night with another massive game against one of the teams in their conference — and division — that they are chasing. The Philadelphia Flyers.
It is also a team that has gained a two-point advantage over them in the previous two head-to-head matchups thanks to a pair of overtime wins.
The Penguins not only need a win here, they need a regulation win. Badly. They need to walk out of Philadelphia with two clean points and not let the Flyers get anything.
Philadelphia remains one of the most surprising teams in the league, and they are playing like the perfect John Tortorella team. Tough, stingy, physical and grinding out games by any means necessary. They have also been legitimately good defensively with some strong goaltending behind it. They have, however, started to cool off considerably over the past couple of weeks. They enter the week having won just two of their previous eight games, coming in with a 2-3-3 mark since Dec. 20 when this current stretch began.
It will be tough. It will be on the road. It is two clean points the Penguins need to secure.
On Thursday they get another tough matchup against another of the league’s most surprising teams — the Vancouver Canucks.
It will bring old friends Jim Rutherford and Rick Tocchet back to Pittsburgh, and also one of the most unexpectedly good rosters.
Vancouver is a little different than Philadelphia in terms of what is driving their success. The Canuck have terrible underlying numbers and have been consistently outchanced for most of the season. What they have going for them is outstanding goaltending from the Thatcher Demko and Casey DeSmith(?!) duo, and a top-heavy lineup that had a handful of players absolutely lighting up the scoreboard.
They have four players averaging more than a point per game, including J.T. Miller with a team-leading 53 points in 39 games, and a potential Norris Trophy winner in defenseman Quinn Hughes.
Elias Pettersson is playing like a superstar and Brock Boeser 24 goals in 39 games.
Defenseman Filip Hronek is also having a monster year with 30 points in 39 games.
Lot of stuff happening there.
There is some definite shooting percentage luck at play, but a lineup that has superstar scorers and great goaltending is going to have a chance to win a lot of games and go pretty far. It might not be a Stanley Cup recipe, but it will win a lot of games. Especially as long as the goaltending keeps playing the way it is. The Penguins are going to have to be on their A-game to get through that.
Then the week wraps up on Saturday with a third meeting this season with the Carolina Hurricanes. The Penguins finally solved the Hurricanes in a shootout win just before Christmas, but Raleigh has been a nightmare place for the Penguins in recent years and the Hurricanes are starting to get back on track and play like the team everybody expected them to be at the start.
Over their past 13 games entering the week they have lost just one game in regulation (8-1-4) while their offense has simply erupted over the past to weeks. That is especially the case with Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov. Aho has 24 points during the aforementioned stretch of games, while Svechnikov has eight goals in his past nine games.
Another divisional game where a clean two points would be significant.
Overall, there has been a lot to like about the way the Penguins have played lately.
After getting walked in the first 20 minutes against Washington they dominated the rest of that game.
They mostly outplayed Boston until the goaltending did them in and made it a close game.
I loved the way they played against Buffalo, they just did not get the result. They play like that every game they will win a lot of games.
They just need to keep bringing that same process.
If they do that I think four points this week is entirely possible. Six would be ideal, but that is asking a lot given the competition. They just have to avoid three-point games against Philadelphia and Carolina. Those need to be the clean two-point wins. Take care of that (again that is easier said than done) and the week is a big success for their playoff push.