The Pittsburgh Penguins play one more game in November before hitting a 14-game stretch in December, with 8 of the first 10 coming on the road. They will likely be glad to put the tough month of November behind them after going 4-7-1 for 9 of 24 possible points, with one game remaining to play. By comparison, the Penguins escaped November 2006 with a 5-5-4 record for 14 of 28 possible points last season. So, what is in store for the Penguins as they head into December?
First, it is undeniable that the last two victories may have helped turn the corner on a less than acceptable season start. Beating Ottawa, the league’s #1 team by a score to 6-5 in a double come from behind shootout on their own turf was certainly a shot-in-the-arm for the young, talented Penguins. The subsequent 5-0 thrashing of Atlanta was also a momentum builder with a Fleury shutout and goals coming from snake-bitten supporting cast members Jordan Staal and Colby Armstrong. The real test will be to see how they fare against the Dallas Stars on Friday night after a 5-day layoff. Will they be able to maintain the momentum and synergy that developed in the last 2-games, or will they come out flat and plant the seed of doubt back in the minds?
As far as the road ahead in December, here is the layout:
- 1 Dec: @ Toronto Maple Leafs (8-11-5)
- 3 Dec: Phoenix Coyotes (11-10-0)
- 5 Dec: @ Edmonton Oilers (10-13-1)
- 6 Dec: @ Calgary Flames (10-11-3)
- 8 Dec: @ Vancouver Canucks (12-9-2)
- 11 Dec: @ at Philadelphia Flyers (13-8-2)
- 13 Dec: Ottawa Senators (16-5-1)
- 15 Dec: @ New York Islanders (12-8-3)
- 18 Dec: @ New York Rangers (13-9-2)
- 20 Dec: @ Boston Bruins (12-8-2)
- 21 Dec: New York Islanders (12-8-3)
- 23 Dec: Boston Bruins (12-8-2)
- 27 Dec: Washington Capitals (8-15-1)
- 29 Dec: Buffalo Sabres (11-10-1)
December starts with 8 of the first 10 games on the road, with the first 5-games being played in a whirlwind span of just 8 days. The Penguins play the 3 of the first 4 games against teams that are currently below 0.500 (Toronto, Edmonton and Calgary), and the 4th against Phoenix, which is just slightly above 0.500. Hopefully the Penguins can play well against these teams to build some momentum as they prepare to face-off against 4 tough division rivals in the middle third of the month. The mid-month battles include games against Philadelphia, Ottawa, the New York Islanders and the New York Rangers. The 4 divisional games will be played over the course of 8-days, with all but the game against the Senators coming on the road. With crucial division points on the line, the Penguins will need to be clicking when they hit that stretch in mid-December as they try to crawl up the points ladder and out of the Atlantic Division basement. The last third of the month is no cakewalk with 3-games in a 4-day span from 20-23 Dec, against 2-teams well above 0.500 in the Boston Bruins and division rival Islanders. Post Christmas, the Penguins take on the struggling Capitals and then the Buffalo Sabres in a preview to the outdoor Winter Classic which will be played a few days later on New Year’s Day.
Last season, the Penguins endured a rough December going 5-7-2 before unleashing the beast and going 8-2-2 in January, 9-3-1 in February, 12-3-2 in March, and 2-1-0 in April. I think it is unlikely that the Penguins will have similar success in the latter half of this season, so they need to be scratching for every point that they can get along the way to ensure that they can find their way into the playoffs. I believe that if the Penguins can hit their stride in December, that they have the potential to pick up about 18 of 28 available points on the month. This will require continued offensive output outside of Gonchar, Sykora, Crosby and Malkin. It will also require a much more consistent level of play from Marc-Andre Fleury, as well as the defnsive corps playing in front of him. The last two games offer some hope that this could be the case in December. A confident Penguins team will be a dangerous team, as was evidenced in the second half of last year. Let’s hope that the Penguins find and build on that confidence soon.