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The Week Ahead: Penguins start second half against Stanley Cup contender

The Pittsburgh Penguins have three games this week, with two of them coming against one of the most surprising Stanley Cup contenders in the NHL.

Montreal Canadiens v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Penguins start the second half of their 2023-24 schedule on Tuesday, and they have 36 games to gain — at minimum — 45 points to put themselves in a reasonable position for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Given how condensed the schedule is and the fact they are the oldest team in hockey, it is not going to be easy. That is especially true this week as they have two games against the Winnipeg Jets, one of the NHL’s best teams and a surprising Stanley Cup contender in the Western Conference.

The first of those meetings is on Tuesday night at home in Pittsburgh. The Jets not only have one of the league’s best records going into the game (30-12-5, 65 points), they are also expected to get back one of their best players as Mark Scheifele is set to return to the lineup. It will also be the first game for Sean Monahan in Winnipeg after he was acquired in a trade from the Montreal Canadiens during the All-Star break.

The Jets are only a middle of the pack team offensively (15th with 3.15 goals per game), but that number comes despite the fact Scheifele missed the past month, Kyle Connor missed 16 games and Gabe Vilardi misssed 20 games. That is three top-six caliber forwards out of the lineup for an extended period of time, and that is going to hurt any offense. With all three of those players back in the lineup, and with the addition of Monahan, that forward lineup looks a lot more formidable.

Winnipeg is also one of the league’s toughest teams to score against, thanks in large part to a dominant goaltending duo that features Connor Hellebuyck.

The Jets re-signed Hellebuyck to a long-term contract extension prior to the season and he has not wasted any time in looking like he is going to be worth every penny of it. At least for the short-term. He enters the week with a .924 save percentage and is one of the biggest reasons the Jets are allowing just 2.30 goals per game, by far the best mark in the league. They are the only team allowing less than 2.50 goals per game this season.

Given the Penguins’ struggles offensively this season, and especially on the power play, they are going to have a tough task ahead of them.

That task does not get any easier as they start a road back-to-back situation on Friday night against the Minnesota Wild.

The Penguins won the first meeting of the season back in December in Pittsburgh and look to complete the regular season sweep on Friday in Minnesota.

The Wild have taken a significant step backwards this season and been one of the league’s bigger disappointments, and there are a lot of factors in involved in that. The first is that the goaltending duo of Filip Gustavsson and Marc-Andre Fleury that masked so many of their flaws a year ago has badly regressed this season, with neither player owning a save percentage over the .900 mark.

They are also still dealing with the salary cap headaches that are coming as a result of the buyouts to Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, essentially dropping their salary cap ceiling by $15 million. That makes filling out a roster and fixing your depth even more difficult. It has caught up to them in a big way.

The one big thing the Wild do have going for them this season is they have two of the league’s top rookies in center Marco Rossi and defenseman Brock Faber. Faber has been the best of the two and already looks like a bonafide top-pairing defenseman. He gets the toughest matchups on the team and has more than held his own.

The Penguins then complete the back-to-back on Saturday with another game against the Jets. That is going to be an extremely tough game, not only because it is on the road against a top-tier team, but also because the Penguins will be playing the second half of a back-to-back (with travel) against a team that is resting the night before. The Penguins have actually done really well in the second half of back-to-backs this season (they are 6-0 in those games entering the week!) but this is going to be one of their toughest matchups of the season.

This is going to be a challenging week. The Penguins are coming in rested after having the All-Star break and their bye week, but the two games against Winnipeg and the road back-to-back mixed in are tough games. If the Penguins can win one of the two games against Winnipeg (Tuesday seems the most likely for that) and beat Minnesota to get four out of a possible six points that would be a very successful week and a good start to the second half of their season.