While 2016 was a rough year for many, it was a great year for the Pittsburgh Penguins. In the latter half of the 2015-16 season, the team continued to progress under new head coach Mike Sullivan, improving month after month and eventually leading to the franchise's 4th Stanley Cup championship. In the first half of the 2016-17 season, despite facing a few key injuries and a regression on the blue line, they haven't missed a beat. They enter the new year second in the NHL with 55 points through 38 games, a staggering 119 point pace that puts them in a position to challenge the 1992-93 squad as the best in team history. They sit second in the Metro as well, with only the Columbus Blue Jackets' 15 game winning streak pushing them a point ahead of the Pens for best in the league.
With the new year kicking off, the Pens will get what they need most - some time off to rest and get healthy. With the NHL debuting "bye weeks" for their teams in the second half of the season, the Penguins, along with the New York Islanders, will be the first to get their five days of rest. In fact, their break will stretch a bit longer, with the Pens not scheduled to play again until January 8th. It allows players like Trevor Daley and Kris Letang, both of who returned to the lineup recently, to get a bit more rest before getting back into the day to day grind. Tom Kuhnhackl has recently returned to practice, and he'll now have extra time to heal before returning. And Matt Murray, who left Wednesday's game with a lower body injury, will have a chance to get back into action without missing too many games.
There's always a risk that the down time will cool off a hot team, but given the team's track record in the Sullivan era it's all but a given that they'll come back strong. And while Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, currently 1-2 in the Art Ross race, will likely need to retake their lead in the scoring race after the week long absence, it'll be a much needed break after a long postseason and shorter offseason including their World Cup appearance. The same goes for Murray, Patric Hornqvist, Carl Hagelin, and Olli Maatta, who all represented their countries (for Murray, generation and continent) in September. But most importantly, it will give the Penguins a chance to regroup for a stretch run they hope will culminate in successfully defending the Cup.