I noted in my December Preview that if the Penguins could successfully build confidence off from the Thanksgiving Day win over the Ottawa Senators, that they could hit their stride and have the potential of picking up 18 of 28 possible points in December. With their win over Buffalo on Saturday night, the Pittsburgh Penguins finished December with a 9-5-0 record, picking up….18 points. This was a huge turnaround for a team that went 4-7-1 in November and picked up just 9 of 24 possible points.
Of course, it wasn’t all roses for the Penguins as they lost several key players to extended injuries in December. First, they lost starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury for 6-8 weeks to a high-ankle sprain on December 6th. Then, a couple of days later, fiesty forward Maxime Talbot got put back on the injured list for a few weeks for the same high-ankle sprain and has not yet returned. The Penguins then lost 1st line forward Ryan Malone for 5-games to a leg infection. Malone returned to the lineup against Buffalo on Saturday night. On December 23rd the Penguins lost one of their best defensemen for the remainder of the season when Marc Eaton left the game against Boston with a torn ACL. Lastly, the team lost veteran leader Gary Roberts for a lengthy, yet undetermined period of time after breaking his fibula in the 2-0 win over the Buffalo Sabres on December 29th. Yet, despite the adversity, the team came away with a 64% winning percentage in December. Perhaps the biggest surprise boost has come from 3rd string goaltender Ty Conklin who has won 4-straight starts, including a shutout against the Sabres. His ability to handle the puck has really helped the team defensively.
So what lies ahead for the Penguins in January? The Penguins will play 13-games for a possible 26-points. A majority of the games (8) will be played on the road, with just 5 being played on home ice. Of the 13-games, the Penguins play just 3-games against Division rivals in January when they face off against the Rangers at home, and then the Flyers and Devils on the road. They will play the Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Atlanta Thrashers twice each, all teams that are currently below them in the standings. In fact, of the 13-games in January, only 2 are against teams that are currently above them in the Eastern Conference standings (Canadiens and Devils), although it is a very tight race in the East.
As far as the road ahead in January, here is the layout for the Penguins (20-16-2), and my best case projections:
- 1 Jan: @ Buffalo Sabres (19-16-2) – projected Win
- 3 Jan: Toronto Maple Leafs (15-16-8) – projected Win
- 5 Jan: Florida Panthers (18-17-3) – projected Win
- 8 Jan: @ Florida Panthers (18-17-3) – projected OTL
- 10 Jan: @ Tampa Bay Lightning (15-21-3) – projected Win
- 12 Jan: @ at Atlanta Thrashers (19-19-1) – projected Win
- 14 Jan: New York Rangers (19-15-4) – projected Loss
- 18 Jan: Tampa Bay Lightning (15-21-3) – projected Win
- 19 Jan: @ Montreal Canadiens (19-13-6) – projected Loss
- 21 Jan: Washington Capitals (15-19-5) – projected Win
- 24 Jan: @ Philadelphia Flyers (18-4-4) – projected OTL
- 29 Jan: @ New Jersey Devils (21-14-3) – projected Loss
- 30 Jan: @ Atlanta Thrashers (19-19-1) – projected Win
January starts with 4 of the first 6 games on the road, including the momentous Winter Classic game in Buffalo on New Year’s Day. Aside from the fact that the majority of the games come on the road, the schedule is more forgiving than it was in December with only 2-games falling back-to-back on subsequent nights (January 29-30 against the Devils and Thrashers, respectively).
Last season, the Penguins came into their own in January going 8-2-2, and then kept rolling by going 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 be able to maintain the similar level of success in the latter half of this season, given more parity in the league and the increase that the Penguins have seen in injuries. However, I hope to be proven wrong. There is certainly an ample amount of talent on the team if they can play to their full potential.
I think that the Penguins will have a very strong January, with the potential to go 8-3-2 and pick up 18 of 26 available points on the month. This will require continued offensive output outside of Gonchar, Sykora, Crosby and Malkin, and continued good play in net by Conklin and Sabourin. 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 can build on the confidence they have developed in December.
Lets Go Pens!