The early schedule is shaping up to be a huge challenge and could dictate what the rest of the season looks like.
We already know — or at least have a strong idea — the Pittsburgh Penguins are going to be playing in the NHL’s toughest division this season. The temporary “East” Division features a lot of the normal Metropolitan Division rivals (Washington, Philadelphia, New York, New York New Jersey) while also welcoming in the Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres.
While the Sabres figure to be near the bottom of the standings, the addition of the Bruins means this division will have five of the top-11 teams from the 2019-20 season, including four of the top-seven (Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh).
Given that teams are only playing divisional games this season as part of a 56-game schedule, this division is going to be rough.
The Penguins are not getting any kind of a break in the beginning with six of their first nine games (the January portion of the schedule) coming against three of the top-six teams from a year ago. They start with two games at Philadelphia, come home for four games against Washington (two) and the New York Rangers (two), and then go on the road for games with the Bruins and Rangers.
That is an especially rough start with two games against your chief rival (Philadelphia) and top team from a year ago, two games against a bonafide Stanley Cup contender (Washington), and two games on the road against the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winner (Boston) in a building where you almost never win. Even those games against the Rangers are far from a gimme given how much of a wild card they are this season. That team is not going to be a pushover by any means given their offensive potential, as well as the fact they have two outstanding young goalies.
Even more than that, if you go through the first week of March the Penguins will play 18 out of their first 26 games (nearly half of the schedule) against teams that finished in the top-11 in the league in points percentage a year ago. Of the eight games that are not against those top teams, six of them are against that Rangers team that is a total wild card.
The bulk of their games against Buffalo and New Jersey do not come until the second half of the season.
There are a lot of elements to this schedule and season that are going to be fascinating to see unfold.
You will hear a lot about how important it will be to start strong this season given how short the season is. But there is always an element of truth to that. The NHL standings in a normal year do not tend to change much after American Thanksgiving, and especially after the start of the new calendar year. The teams that are holding a playoff spot on those dates generally tend to hold on to them. There are exceptions, but there is usually not more than one or two spots flipping after those dates. Still, given the fact that there are only 56 games on the schedule this year there is going to be an even bigger need to avoid putting yourself in a deficit.
That is especially true in a division that has six potential playoff teams with only four available spots. It is quite likely that two very good hockey teams are going to miss the playoffs in this division.
There is also the format itself where you only play teams in your division. That is going to kind of level off the point totals within each division, so while the East has some of the best teams in the league, it does not necessarily mean that it is going to have the teams with the best records, simply because they are only playing each other. You are not going to get those “off” nights against the bottom-feeders of the league to bank points. Teams in the East are getting some of the best teams every night — and only those best teams every night — and it is going to kind of balance itself out a little bit. That also could make it difficult to gain ground because, again, you are not getting those out of division and out of conference matchups where you can stack up points. Even though the Penguins play the bulk of their games against Buffalo and New Jersey in the second half of the season, they still have a lot of games mixed in with Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington.
We might find out a lot about this Penguins team over the first two weeks of the season. Both in terms of how good it actually is, and what sort of season could be in store.