After a great start to the season, the Pittsburgh Penguins enter the month of December with a 14-6-3 record having garnered 31 of 46 possible points so far this season (67%). This puts them on pace for a 110-point season. The Penguins hold 4th place in the Eastern Conference where they trail the streaking New York Rangers and Boston Bruins by 5-points for the top spot in the East. With 1-game in hand against the Bruins and 3-games in hand against the Rangers, the Penguins are in a good position given their slow starts of the past few seasons. It is particularly impressive given that the team exchanged a number of role players in the off-season, has had its 2-top defensemen on extended injured reserve, and has been playing without its top goaltender for the past couple of weeks. Add to that the fact that Sidney Crosby is just now starting to roll, the Penguins 3rd line has found some awesome chemistry, and Ryan Whitney will be rejoining the team soon, and there is a lot to look forward to. So what lies ahead in December?
Despite the challenges of starting the season in Europe, the Penguins have had a relatively easy game schedule for the first two months of this season. That is about to change. The Penguins will play 14-games in 25-days in December, including four back-to-back games (they played back-to-back games just twice in the first two months). Speaking about the upcoming back-to-back games, Evgeni Malkin said, “It’s OK, I like it. I like to play games. It’s a little different. The second game is more difficult. It’s more physical.” Sidney Crosby added his perspective, “You get used to it by going through it. It’s something that you have to get used to. Mentally, you deal with. The more often you go through it, the more comfortable you get with it. We’ll get lots of practice with it over the next couple of months.”
The Penguins will spend the majority of December on the road, playing 8-games in other rinks and just 6 at home in the Mellon Arena. The only consecutive home games this month are the last two on the 27th and 30th. Just 5 games will be played against divisional foes. The Penguins will face 12-different teams in 14-games to include the Rangers, Hurricanes, Senators, Sabres (2x), Devils (2x), Islanders, Flyers, Thrashers, Maple Leafs, Lightning, Canadiens and Bruins! The only Eastern Conference teams that they will not face-off against in December are the Florida Panthers and the Washington Capitals. So, it is sure to be a busy and diverse month ahead! The following is the full lineup, with the home games italicized:
- 3 Dec – at New York Rangers
- 4 Dec – at Carolina Hurricanes
- 6 Dec – at Ottawa Senators
- 8 Dec – Buffalo Sabres
- 10 Dec – at New Jersey Devils
- 11 Dec – New York Islanders
- 13 Dec – at Philadelphia Flyers
- 18 Dec – at Atlanta Thrashers
- 20 Dec – Toronto Maple Leafs
- 22 Dec – at Buffalo Sabres
- 23 Dec – Tampa Bay Lightning
- 26 Dec – at New Jersey Devils
- 28 Dec – Montreal Canadiens
- 30 Dec – Boston Bruins
The Penguins will face off 7-times against teams currently in the bottom half of the Conference standings and 7-times against teams currently in the top half. The first game of the month (vs the Rangers) and the last game of the month (vs the Bruins) are the only games against teams currently ahead of the Penguins in the standings. The Penguins hope to get Ryan Whitney back into the lineup in December, as well as Marc-Andre Fleury and Philippe Bouchard. Keeping with his rotational leadership plan, Coach Michel Therrien today announced that Jordan Staal and Matt Cooke will wear the “A” as Alternate Captains for the month of December. This is good recognition for their outstanding play in November.
In summary, the Penguins face a difficult schedule in the month of December. This will be a good test for the team, and the road time will provide additional opportunities for the team to gel. If the Penguins offense remains healthy, I project that they could pick up as many as 22 of 28 available points in December. I will go out on a limb and project a 10-2-2 record in December.