By Matt Popchock

The time I’ve recently spent at Consol Energy Center covering the high school hockey playoffs has given me the opportunity to get a closer look at the various banners adorning the rafters.  Believe it or not, there’s still a chance, with 11 regular season games remaining, that I’ll be looking at a second Atlantic Division Champions banner when I’m covering the Penguins Cup Playoffs at this time next year.

For that to happen, or at least for the Penguins to improve their stead in the Eastern Conference playoff standings, they’ll have to erase a six-point deficit to Philadelphia, which just clinched its own playoff berth and has the same number of regular season contests left.  Furthermore, the Pens must survive one of the toughest single weeks of the regular season, which begins today, and brings on three games against Atlantic Division opponents, plus one against one of the teams to beat in the West.

You hate to put more pressure on this team, considering what it has already overcome not just to knock on the postseason door, but to stay near the top of the pecking order in the East.  But, this could really be a make-or-break week in terms of where the Pens end up, and, to a certain extent, who their round-one opponent might be.

The Penguins enter their nationally-televised matinee at Consol Energy Center against the New York Rangers today with a record of 8-7-3 versus divisional opponents.  Not a horrible mark, all things considered, but those eight wins are the second-fewest divisional victories of any team in the Atlantic Division.  There’s no time like the present for the Penguins, who are arguably healthier now than they ever have been since Evgeni Malkin was shut down, to rewrite that script.

Here’s a look at what the Penguins are up against over the next seven days:

Sunday: New York Rangers (home) – The fact that the Penguins are 11-2-3 on home ice against the Blueshirts and are trying to win the season series for the third season in a row and fourth time in the past five campaigns should make me feel better about this one.  In that sentence the operative word is “should.”  The Pens won two of their three contests at MSG, including an inspiring shootout victory Feb. 1, but dropped two games to the Rangers at Consol Energy Center (a 3-2 OT loss Nov. 15 and a 4-1 loss Dec. 15) that had one thing in common: both games, arguably, should not have gotten as far out of hand as they eventually did.  Those are three points left on the table that loom large right now.  The Penguins need to keep an eye on Ryan Callahan, who is averaging over a point per game in his last 20 and loves playing the Pens. But, more importantly, they need their penalty killing to be as sharp as it has been as of late.  In the November loss, it was a shorthanded goal that forced an ill-fated overtime in what probably should have been a slam-dunk victory, albeit a come-from-behind one. The Rangers’ power play is clicking since the addition of Bryan McCabe via the Florida Panthers.

Monday: Detroit Red Wings (road) – One thing the Penguins have done reasonably well during the non-Crosby portion of their season is taking what the schedule-makers give them, which includes picking up valuable points against Western Conference opponents.  Pittsburgh is 10-4-3 against Western teams thus far.  It has no effect on the Penguins if those particular games go beyond regulation, but they need to get at least one point out of what should be a difficult test at The Joe.  They already own an impressive 4-1 win over what was, at the time, a Detroit team almost as banged up as the Pens. As usual, the Wings seem to be playing their best hockey at the right time, and Pavel Datsyuk has…well, looked like Pavel Datsyuk since coming off IR, averaging a point per game until sitting out Saturday’s game against Nashville.  The Pens have only won three times in that building in their last eight trips. Two of those wins were games in the Stanley Cup Finals.  Like Sunday’s game, it’s on national TV (Versus)–a setting in which, for whatever reason, the Pens have not fared exceptionally well this season.

Thursday: Philadelphia Flyers (road) – This one, to quote Ron Burgundy, is kind of a big deal.  Fortunes have reversed in this rivalry, which the Penguins all but dominated a year ago, but the 2010-11 season has been a different story.  The Flyers, who might have been summarily dismissed had they faced the Pens last spring, have otherwise proven the miracle they performed against Boston and the Stanley Cup Final berth that soon followed was no abberation.  The Insert-Name-of-Fledgling-Financial-Instituion-Here Arena (this week it’s called Wells Fargo Center) is one of the cruelest places to play for any NHL team, to say nothing of Philly’s arch-nemesis, and the Penguins sleepwalked through their last game there, a nationally televised 3-2 loss Dec. 14.  Philadelphia took over the division and conference lead that night, and haven’t really looked back since.  Including that setback, the Pens have just one win and three equally disappointing losses against the Fly Guys this year. The silver lining is the Pens, on the whole, have played well in that building in recent years. Their only victory against Philly thus far came on Oct. 16, a 5-1 decision.  On the one hand, as Marc-Andre Fleury goes, so might go the Pens this Thursday, as the Flyers boast the top offense in the East.  But, the Pens need to score a couple themselves–they managed just two goals in each of those three losses — each coming when Sid and Geno were in the lineup.

Friday: New Jersey Devils (home) – If the Pens don’t score first, they drop this one.  Enough said, right?  Okay, so the last time the Pens sprung the vaunted neutral-zone trap enough to take two points from Jersey was a 2-1 win at Consol Energy Center Dec. 6 in which they didn’t score first.  But, let’s not kid ourselves, 2-1 games are par for the course when you’re facing a playoff hopeful that has suddenly trapped its way to one of the most remarkable runs by a team left for dead in league history (hough they’ve come back to Earth the last couple games) since putting Jacques Lemaire back in control.  Having said all this, the Penguins are one of the few teams in the NHL that has historically fared well against Martin Brodeur during the regular campaign.  The first goal is often all he needs, so the first 20 minutes could tell the tale here. The Devils have recently gone through a 16-game stretch without allowing a first-period goal.

How can the Penguins survive “The Gauntlet?”

*James Neal needs to start hitting the net.  He has only one goal (and two assists) in 10 games as a Penguin, but he could have at least 10, considering all the good looks he’s gotten.  The inconsistency issues that dogged him in Dallas have resurfaced in Pittsburgh, though it’s been less noticeable with his new mates recently picking up the slack.  Still, until the real deal returns, Neal is the Penguins’ Crosby, so he needs to pick it up.

*Someone, preferrably Dan Bylsma, needs to remind Kris Letang it’s okay for him–or whoever else might play the right point on the power play–to shoot the puck more than once…several times, even.  It’s okay, Tanger, this isn’t “Hoosiers.”  Coach Dale isn’t going to make you ride the bench if you pass less than four times before pulling the trigger.  The one knock I have against Dan Bylsma, who has my fictitious Jack Adams Trophy vote as we speak, is that the power play hasn’t prospered under his watch, even after adding Neal and Alexei Kovalev, though lately I think the blame falls on execution, not coaching.  There is still too much east-and-west, and not nearly enough north-and-south.  The Pens love those cross-ice passes to set up one-timers, but teams seem to be anticipating those passes, and to my recollection, it hasn’t worked with any degree of consistency since Alex Goligoski (and before him, Ryan Whitney) was a Penguin.  This team won the Cup two years ago in spite of its power play, but in the long run, it can’t thrive without it, as we saw last spring, even if Crosby does return.  Have guys like Letang and Kovalev take more chances up high, and have guys like Staal and Kunitz camped out down low who are willing to pay a physical price to score, and thereby improve what has been a thoroughly unreliable unit.

*I don’t know if it’s a byproduct of the us-against-the-world mentality the team has adopted amidst its uncanny health issues, but the Penguins’ penalty kill has been fun to watch.  It doesn’t score goals, but it has been absolutely integral to the team’s respectable play without its two top guns.  Thinking about what a joke this aspect of the Penguins’ game used to be not too many years ago is quite laughable now. Aside from general team defense, penalty killing has been perhaps their strongest suit these days.  The first period of last Sunday’s win over Edmonton was a microcosm of why the Penguins are still near the top of the East.  After getting manhandled by the Pens, the Oilers had a golden opportunity to play rope-a-dope early on, but the Pens killed off a 5-on-3 disadvantage without allowing a single shot–a major turning point in that game.  The fact that Marc-Andre Fleury has, for the most part, played like an MVP candidate since Sid and Geno went down, hasn’t hurt either.  As long as those things keep up, the Pens can finish strong.

*The Penguins have worked awfully hard to win without their stars, but they must also work smart.  The lack of discipline at times has been disturbing.  Even if you discount all those times Deryk Engelland, Eric Godard, and company dropped the mittens in the interest of following the so-called “code of hockey,” the Pens are still one of the most penalized teams in the NHL, and really, I don’t see any reason from them to be.  I’ve always felt that Bylsma, regarded as a players’ coach, needed to go outside his own coaching style and shorten the leash on his team in this respect, and chances are, he has.  Recently, the Pens have done a better job avoiding needless penalties, and this needs to continue against teams like the Rangers and Flyers that have gelled on the power play.  Yes, Pittsburgh has one of the most dependable PK’s in hockey, but with so much at stake in the days and weeks ahead, why tempt fate?

*Finally, the Penguins’ regular season–and, for that matter, postseason–fate might very well come down to one word: finish.  They’ve gone 5-2-3 in their last 10 outings.  In the three overtime losses, like most of the games they dropped without Crosby and Malkin, they’ve been very much in the game, with chances to reverse the eventual outcome.  In Chicago, Tyler Kennedy missed a partially open net in OT, and his teammates couldn’t score in the shootout, a phase of the game in which the Pens often thrive.  In Toronto, the Pens couldn’t get pucks behind James Reimer when they had the better of the play, and Neal, as previously mentioned, had his chances.  In New Jersey, a Zbynek Michalek penalty led to the denial of a bonus point in the extra session.  The Penguins must play opportunistic hockey this week, because against the teams they’ll be playing, those opportunities may not come easily.

The Pens should be walking tall as they begin this crucial mini-stretch, as they’ve looked good handling their business in two games they should have won convincingly, and did.  They should be walking even taller considering Arron Asham is returning, Brooks Orpik and Mike Comrie don’t seem far behind, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll get to see Sid skate once more in something other than a closed-door workout.  But none of that will matter unless the Pens prove they can skate on even terms with teams that can and probably will skate on even terms with them.

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