You could make the argument that the Pittsburgh Penguins are the hottest team in the league right now.
Banged up and without many of it’s normal starters, the Pens are a rag-tag combination of relatively untested young prospects, AHL call-ups, and bottom six role players. Despite this, Captain Sidney Crosby has managed to lead the Penguins to six straight wins and 11 in 12 games.
It’s an unbelievable hot streak that will begin a serious stress test Monday when Pittsburgh travels to Ottawa for the first game of a four-game road trip that will also include stops in Carolina, Columbus, and New Jersey.
While it may not be the most formidable stretch of their schedule this season, a lengthy road trip for a team that is as banged up as the Penguins are right now will be a useful litmus test to truly see just how well a young group like Pittsburgh’s responds to pressure and adversity away from the comfort of the Consol Energy Center.
From a defensive standpoint, Pittsburgh has to keep it simple much, like they have been doing for long stretches of the season. Up and comers Simon Despres, Robert Bortuzzo, and Brian Dumoulin have exhibited excellent hockey sense and calm under pressure for such young players, while rookie standout Olli Maata has continued to dazzle with his offensive capabilities as well as his stout defensive play.
Matt Niskanen, once thought to be trade bait, has emerged as the Penguins veteran leader on the blue line, and has arguably been Pittsburgh’s most valuable asset since coming under siege from injuries. He will need to continue to lead by example as the Pens face some tough physical completion on the road, particularly in Ottawa and New Jersey.
On the flip side, Pittsburgh’s objectives are much less complicated: keep doing what you’re doing. Captain Sidney Crosby has continued to lay waste to the NHL scoring race. He currently holds the lead with 54 points, a six point advantage over Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks.
Even with star center Evgeni Malkin out nursing a leg injury, the Penguins have not struggled to find the back of the net. Linemate Chris Kunitz currently has 20 goals, and with the return of James Neal from suspension, the Penguins still boast one of the most potent offenses in the league.
Goaltenders Marc-Andre Fleury and Jeff Zatkoff have been solid when they needed to be, with MAF carrying the bulk of the workload for long stretches. Flower’s save percentage of .924 is currently fourth in the NHL, and he leads the league in wins with 21. His current resurgence has bailed the Penguins out more than a few times when they needed it. The outcome of these next few pivotal games rests largely on his shoulders.
All in all, if the Pens stick to their games and keep it simple, I see no reason why they can’t take all four of these games in the upcoming week.