Instead of looking back and asking what did we learn from the Penguins play through the first quarter of the NHL season, I am going to look forward and ask “what will we learn from the Penguins in the last month of 2014?”
Dec. 2 through Dec. 7. –
The Pens open the month of December with a weeklong home stand against New Jersey, Vancouver and Ottawa. While New Jersey might currently be 5th in the Metropolitan Division they are 12th in the Eastern Conference with 22 points and have lost six of their last seven games and their sole win during that stretch was against the lowly Oilers. The Vancouver game might have some analysts saying “potential Stanley Cup preview tonight,” but at this point it’s just two of the best in each Conference facing off for the first time this season. The Canucks, behind the resurgence of not only goalie Ryan Miller, but also the Sedin’s, are currently 3rd in the Western Conference with 33 points, just one point behind Pittsburgh’s 34. Ottawa, ranked right above New Jersey in the East at 11th, is currently 7th in the Atlantic and have lost four of their last five. Their lone victory came in that ugly game in St. Louis last week where Blues starting goaltender Brian Elliot left the game due to injury.
Forecast: The Penguins have a good chance to not only win two out of these three, but realistically could sweep the week since Ryan Miller traditionally does not play well against Pittsburgh. Since the beginning of the Crosby – Malkin era, Miller is just 6 – 16 against the Penguins with a GAA of 3.09 and a .892 SV%.
Dec. 8 through Dec. 15. –
Both Penguins and Rangers fans should be anxiously waiting for the puck to drop on this burgeoning rivalry on Monday December 8. The Rangers have won four of their last five against Pittsburgh going back to last year’s playoffs. Their one loss came when Rangers Dan Boyle appeared to net the game winning shootout goal back in mid-November, but both teams were called back from their locker rooms when replay showed that Boyle double hit the shot, disallowing the goal and forcing the shootout to continue, which the Penguins won in the next round.
Luckily for Pittsburgh they get three days of rest after the Rangers game before playing three games in four nights. Also lucky for Pittsburgh is that after tousling with a scrappy Calgary team on Friday night they will travel to Columbus to face off against the lowly Blue Jackets on Saturday. Two days later the Penguins host the Atlantic Division leaders the Tampa Bay Lightning, who currently lead the NHL in G/GP with 3.5, are third in PP% and are undefeated so far this season when scoring first.
Forecast: This should be the toughest week for the Penguins in December and there is a good chance that they could drop three of four games on this stretch. The Rangers, and Henrik Lundqvist in particular, seem to have the Penguins number lately. During the previously mentioned five game span, Lundqvist is not only 4-1, but also has a 1.0 GAA with an outstanding .971 SV%. The Calgary game will be tough, but the Flames play Buffalo the night before and the game is in Pittsburgh, giving the Penguins a slight advantage. It’s hard to say what the Tampa Bay game will bring, but the league will certainly be on notice as the two leading teams of the Eastern divisions face off for the first time this season.
Dec. 18 through Dec. 23. –
The Penguins face off against the Avalanche for the first of their two games this season on Wednesday December 18. Currently Colorado is last in the Central Division and their road to Pittsburgh is a tough one and shows little promise of improving their standing. Pittsburgh then has a Saturday – Monday home and home with the Panthers, whose early season woes appeared to be slightly fading until their 2-1 loss in Columbus on Monday night. The Penguins finish their trip down South with their second match up with Tampa Bay on Tuesday December 23 in what should be a promising rematch of their meeting from the previous week.
Forecast: The Penguins have a good chance to win three of four here and depending on what they learn from their earlier meeting with Tampa Bay they could sweep this section of their schedule. However, it will be tough to win three games in four nights, two of them on the road in Florida and ending in Tampa Bay.
Dec. 27 through Dec. 31 –
The Penguins wrap up 2014 in the Metropolitan Division playing Washington, New Jersey and Carolina. A Crosby – Ovechkin match up always brings in viewers and provides outstanding entertainment, which is good for the NHL. Washington has been off to a slow start this season, but their December schedule looks promising so they might have momentum heading into their Dec. 27 game in Pittsburgh. The Penguins start the final week of the year in New Jersey against the Devils and then ring in the New Year at home after playing Carolina on New Year’s Eve.
Forecast: The Penguins could win two of three here, their toughest matchup down this stretch being Washington. However, after their last series with Carolina maybe I’m a little off the mark here. Overall it seems likely the Penguins will end the year strong, bringing promises of goodwill and wins for 2015.
What we’ll learn:
A few things should be kept in mind with these concluding thoughts. First, as I mentioned in a previous article, nine of the Penguins last fourteen games of 2014 are at Consol Energy Center and the other five are in the Eastern Time Zone, so this will not be a travel logged team this December. Secondly, the further we get away from the present the more difficult the analysis and prognostication, especially with the ebbs and flows of the NHL season. However, I still think that this December will teach us some things about the Penguins.
- We’ll find out how they handle some of the top tier teams in both conferences and even some potential playoff opponents, at all levels. We’ll learn not only how they match up against some of the best in the NHL but also how they adjust to tougher opponents.
- We’ll see how they play against the teams they are “supposed to beat.” Penguins fans are still scratching their heads over last Friday’s loss to Carolina, but there are plenty of potentially similar games on December’s schedule. We’ll learn if Pittsburgh can stay focused in the early portion of the second quarter of the season and win when they are supposed to. A few dropped games here could be an indicator of a prolonged opening round playoff series.
- Lastly, we’ll see if despite recent lineup changes, including the recent call ups of Andrew Ebbett and Brian Dumoulin, they can get much needed points and momentum heading into 2015 and most likely their most challenging month of the year to that point: January
And if disaster hits this December, Pens fans try not to be too discouraged. In their championship season of 2008-09 the Penguins were an ugly 5 – 9 in December, but found a way to right the ship and sail through to the Stanley Cup Finals.