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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Roadtrip Refresher by @BrianK_PI

The Penguins return home to Consol Energy Center tomorrow night to face the Montreal Canadiens after a 4 game road trip that saw them go 3-1-0 and, more importantly, saw them make important strides in areas such as possession (52.9 CF% over the road trip) and on the power play (4/12 - 33.3%). Though Saturday's game against the Calgary Flames snapped a 6 game winning streak, the Pens will try to keep the momentum going with a November schedule that sees them play 6 of the next 7 and 7 of 9 overall in Pittsburgh before starting another West Coast swing to kick off December.

The Western Conference road trips can make it more challenging to keep up with the team and see all the games, especially considering that tomorrow night's game will be the first starting before 9 PM EST in nearly two weeks. After the break we'll take a look back at what happened, some of the big story lines, and what to expect as the team transitions back to the home stand.

The Penguins kicked off the road trip by taking care of business, beating Toronto 4-0 in Phil Kessel's return to the Air Canada Center. Much was made about the Leafs not honoring Kessel after his six season's in hockey's most intense market, but in the end it was the 2nd PP unit starting things off with Chris Kunitz tapping in a puck in the crease for a goal, Eric Fehr scoring a SHG in his Penguins debut after offseason Tommy John surgery, and Marc Andre Fleury saving 21 shots without facing too much of a challenge to secure the shutout.

The last time Sidney Crosby faced Ryan Miller in Vancouver he scored arguably the most memorable goal of his life, and Crosby was able to find the back of the net again as the Pens held on to beat Vancouver 3-2 to run their winning streak to 5 games. David Perron's first of the year, Crosby's PPG, and Eric Fehr becoming the first player in NHL history to score a SHG in each of his first 2 games with a new team on a beautiful individual effort gave Pittsburgh a 3-0 lead they almost relinquished as the Canucks got two quick goals in the final 6:01 before falling short.

Jeff Zatkoff posted his second strong game in as many starts, Daniel Sprong scored his second on the season in his 9th game, and the Penguins won their sixth straight in beating Edmonton 2-1. Phil Kessel scored another PPG to round out the scoring for Pittsburgh, though the game was overshadowed by the news shortly before the puck dropped that Pascal Dupuis was hospitalized as a precaution after experiencing some symptoms possibly related to the blood clots he experienced last year. Luckily for both the player and the team, the tests came back negative, and Dupuis is expected to return against Montreal.

The second game of a back to back at the end of a Western Conference roadtrip combined with a 3 goal 1st period from the Flames and it's not hard to see how the Penguins dropped this one to Calgary 5-2. Phil Kessel scored his team leading 6th goal and the power play made it 5 straight games with a goal on the man advantage, but goals by Johnny Gaudreau and Sam Bennett in the final 4 minutes of the 1st proved to be the fatal blow from which Pittsburgh couldn't recover. Daniel Sprong appeared in his 10th game of the year, meaning that his entry level contract would count this season and all but ensuring that he would be in Pittsburgh for the entire year, no small feat for an 18 year old rookie who fell to the middle of the 2nd round.

What to Look For Coming Up

Wednesday, November 11 at 7:30 PM EST

The Montreal Canadiens and reigning league MVP Carey Price come to town with the league's best record, having gone 13-2-1 so far on the season, a scorching start that would extrapolate to 138 points is sustained over a full 82 game season. Montreal has traditionally been an average to below average team buoyed by the elite play of Price, but the team has posted a score adjusted 53.0 CF% to this point in the season, which is 5th in the league. If Montreal can continue to receive drive possession among the best in the league, they are going to be a very legitimate threat for the Stanley Cup with Price in goal.

The Penguins will hope to continue their recent success on the power play, where they've scored power play goals in 5 straight games (5/13 - 38.5%), raising their success rate on the season to 15.9% after a brutal 2-for-31 stretch to begin the year. Marc Andre Fleury will be challenged by a Canadiens team that boasts 9 players each with 11 or more points - the same number that Penguins scoring leader Evgeni Malkin currently has.

Friday, November 13 at 7 PM EST

Columbus had high hopes for the season after acquiring Brandon Saad in a trade from the Chicago Blackhawks, but an 8 game losing streak to start the season that cost coach Todd Richards his job seven games in has all but knocked the Blue Jackets out of contention well before the calendar flips to 2016. New coach John Tortorella will at least keep things interesting in the meantime, though the decision to part with what's likely to be a high 2nd round pick to bring him aboard is more than a bit puzzling. The team has gone 4-4-0 since the coaching change, but it will take much more than 0.500 hockey for the team to be relevant going forward.

Saturday, November 14 at 7 PM EST

The Penguins face off against former GM Ray Shero and former WB-S Baby Pens head coach John Hynes for the first time as the team travels to New Jersey for the second game of a back to back. It's likely to be a multi-year rebuild for Shero in the Garden State, but Devils currently find themselves in the first wildcard spot with an 8-5-1 record through 14 games played. Naturally goalie Cory Schneider plays a large role in the surprising start with a 2.15 GAA and 0.923 SV%, but the team has posted improved, though still not great, possession numbers in the early going (49.0 CF%) after finishing 26th in the league last year (47.2 CF%). It's unlikely that New Jersey has the talent or depth to sustain this level of play throughout the season, but the results are encouraging in the early going of the new regime, one taking over for a general manager in Lou Lamoriello who had held the position since the 1987-88 season.

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