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On Jan. 4, the Carolina Hurricanes defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins by a score of 4-0. The Pens’ vaunted offensive stars were blanked. In a critical game. At home.

It was an ugly loss.

It was a low point.

But, it was also a turning point.

After that setback, the Pens won six of their next eight games. And the two losses, both on the road in California, could have been Pittsburgh victories.

“We go on that California trip and we lose two of the (three) games, but we played three pretty solid games,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “It’s about how you play. That’s what we talk with our team about. It’s about controlling the control-ables. It starts with attitude and effort and then we go from there.

“I give our players a lot of credit. They’ve been locked in here. And we’ve got to continue to be in order to get to where we want to go.”

Where the Pens want to go is the Stanley Cup playoffs. That’s a position they weren’t in following the setback to Carolina in early January.

Pittsburgh sat 10th overall in the Eastern Conference and three points behind eighth-seeded Carolina for a playoff spot.

However, their recent 6-2 run – culminating in the Pens’ 3-1 revenge victory against the Hurricanes on Tuesday night – has catapulted the team into the eighth spot with 55 points, and within two points of second place in the Metro Division.

“We’ve had consistency for the most part and need to continue it,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “I think that the situation we’ve been in for a while, our urgency has picked up a lot. That’s a huge difference. Being tougher on the puck and all the little details to win games. We’re more aware of those.”

“We just kept building and building slowly (after the Carolina loss),” defenseman Olli Maatta said. “But we’ve played better. I think if we keep playing the same way and fix a couple of things we’ll be all right.”

The Pens will face the Minnesota Wild on Thursday night at PPG Paints Arena with a chance to enter this weekend’s All-Star break on a 7-2 run for 14 of a possible 18 points. And while the Pens are only two points from second place in the Metro Division, they’re also a mere two points out from the ninth spot and a non-playoff berth. That’s how tight the standings are with 30ish games left in the season.

“It’s coming down to crunch time,” center Riley Sheahan said. “Seeing everyone in the standings and how close they are, we realize that we’re still in the battle. It’s time to get our stuff together and put together some games. I think we’ve been playing some good hockey.”

There’s no doubt the Pens are in the midst of their best stretch of hockey on the current season. So that begs the question, what has changed with the team over the past three weeks.

“Confidence,” Justin Schultz told me.

“From stringing some wins together and getting back to our style of play,” he continued, “playing fast, good puck possession, holding onto pucks in the O zone. It feels like we have the puck more than we don’t.

“Confidence is huge. We’re getting back to that winning feeling and knowing what it takes. It was a slow start, but we’re picking it up now. We should be fine.”

And that confidence couldn’t be coming at a better time.

“The season is (almost) over,” Maatta said. “We didn’t start the way we wanted. We have to have that urgency right now.”

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Here are the 3 biggest takeaways from the Penguins’ Friday afternoon skate in San Jose.

1. Schultz okay after crosscheck

Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz skated after he left in the third period of Thursday’s game following a crosscheck from Dustin Brown.

“I feel fine,” Schultz said. “Everything went well out there, so I’m good to go. I was pretty nervous at first, luckily all the tests went well and a good day on the ice today. I’ll be ready to go tomorrow.”

On the play, Schultz had fallen to his knees facing the boards and was completely defenseless when Brown skated up and leveled him from behind, sending his face into the dasher.

The Kings forward received a five-minute major and a game misconduct, as well as a hearing with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety this afternoon. However, Brown did not receive a suspension, merely receiving a fine of $10,000, the maximum allowable under the CBA.

“The league deals with that, I’m not going to comment and start anything,” Schultz said. “It is what it is. I’m not hurt, so that’s alright. I’ll be back next game.”

Evgeni Malkin also received disciplinary action for a play in the game. He was fined $5,000 for spearing Brown in the first period.

2. Pens monitoring workload

The team stayed the night in Los Angeles following their 3-1 win over the Kings and had an 11 a.m. flight to San Jose this morning. When they landed, one bus went to the team hotel while the other took Schultz, Jean-Sebastien Dea, Daniel Sprong, Ian Cole, Chad Ruhwedel, Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith to the Sharks’ practice facility for a skate.

The Penguins have been taking advantage of every opportunity they have to get rest, especially since entering the second half of the season. For this California swing, they’ve only had one full practice – on Tuesday in Anaheim – and will finish the trip without having held a morning skate for any of the three games.

“We’re obviously trying to monitor our workload and for example, this particular week, we’re in the middle of three games in four nights,” head coach Mike Sullivan explained. “We just had back-to-back games, two pretty tough games against two really good teams. To give them an opportunity to recover today, we felt as though it was really important so that we can be at our best tomorrow.”

3. WBS streaking

The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins extended their season-best winning streak to 8 games with a 4-1 win over the Lehigh Valley Phantoms on Wednesday.

Arguably the most impressive part of that streak is that a number of WBS’ top forwards and both goaltenders they started the season with are currently with Pittsburgh: DeSmith, Jarry, Dea, Sprong and Dominik Simon.

Talking with Dea, who made his season debut on Thursday centering Tom Kuhnhackl and Ryan Reaves, he credited the entire organization from top to bottom for making it easy on guys to slot in wherever they’re needed.

“The whole organization does a great job, starting in Wheeling,” Dea said. “When guys come up they’re ready to play so it makes everything easier. In Wilkes we had good guys down there who work hard. That’s the way we play here in the Pittsburgh organization. We work hard and skate. So that’s why, I think. All three groups of players on the teams make a big group and everybody works hard and helps each other. Every time guys get called up and stuff, they’re ready to go and they know what to do.”

It also helps that WBS head coach Clark Donatelli, who is one of the absolute best people in the game, and first-year assistant coach Tim Army do a tremendous job of finding that balance between development and winning.

“They’re the best, obviously,” Dea said with a smile. “You look at Clarkie, you can’t ask for a better guy to make you feel comfortable. Always there to talk to you and make sure you’re comfortable. Obviously they’re doing a really good job down there.”

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1. Forward Patric Hornqvist will be a game-time decision with an upper-body injury. He practiced on Wednesday and at Thursday’s morning skate.

2. Newly acquired defenseman Jamie Oleksiak is expected to make his Pittsburgh debut tonight. The 6-foot-7, 255-pound blueliner also will celebrate his 25th birthday.

3. Tonight marks the 2-year anniversary of head coach Mike Sullivan’s first victory behind the Pittsburgh bench. Coincidentally, that game was also against Columbus. Sullivan has won 99 games since then to become the 4th coach in team history to reach 100 victories.

4. Columbus played on Wednesday evening, a 4-2 win against Toronto. Prior to the win the Jackets had lost 3 of their past 5 games, including matching 7-2 losses to Edmonton and Boston.

5. Second-year pro Josh Anderson leads the Jackets with 13 goals in 33 games. He’s set to best his rookie production of 17.

INJURIES

PIT – Patric Hornqvist (upper-body), Justin Schultz (lower-body).

CBJ – Brandon Dubinsky (fractured orbital bone), Ryan Murray (upper-body), Zach Werenski (upper-body).

MORNING SKATE

* The Pens held an optional morning skate. The only players missing were Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang. Winger Phil Kessel, who missed Wednesday’s practice for a maintenance day, was on the ice.

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Duane and Shaney Boles have spent the last few days at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh with their 11-year-old son, Ryder.

As they were waiting to be discharged on Wednesday afternoon, a hospital worker entered the room and informed them that they would have to wait just a little bit longer – because Penguins players would be stopping by as part of their annual holiday visit.

As soon as Shaney heard the news, she couldn’t help it. She started to cry.

“I cried because he’s been a frequent flier here at Children’s since he was 15 months, honestly,” Shaney said of Ryder. “It’s been pretty much once a month for his whole life. He’s really just a pretty tough kid. He has a heart condition and some vertigo and he gets pretty sick, so that’s why he has to come in for fluids and maintenance.

“And honestly, he’s a huge Pens fan. As soon as they said that, I just knew right away he would be so excited if they came walking through the room.”

Ryder is unable to play contact sports because of his health, so he has never gotten the chance to play hockey. But he absolutely loves to watch hockey, and to see his favorite player, Sidney Crosby, from his favorite team, coming through the door was overwhelming in the best way.

“I’m really happy,” smiled Ryder, who hopes to sing the national anthem before a Penguins game someday. “I’m super excited I got to meet the players that I’ve been watching forever. I’ve been watching Sidney Crosby on the ice since I was two years old. It was just super awesome.”

Both Ryder and Shaney were overcome with emotion after such a special visit, sitting on the bed together and crying tears of joy when the players left.

“It just meant more than they really know,” Shaney said. “They were so sweet. As a mom and a dad, we see him go through all this stuff. But for them to walk in there, it was just really, really special to us. We appreciated it so much.”

The reaction of Ryder and his family was incredibly heartwarming, as was the reaction of Yaheim Young and his parents.

Crosby, Ryan Reaves, c, Tristan Jarry and newest Penguin Jamie Oleksiak delivered Yaheim a Christmas gift, which he couldn’t have been more thrilled to open.

To Yaheim’s delight, it was an Amazon Fire tablet. “Sweet! Cool! Thank you!” exclaimed Yaheim, who got up and hugged each and every player. The players’ goal is to put smiles on the kids’ faces, but Crosby had the biggest one after that interaction, who said to Yaheim’s parents, “Glad he liked it! What a great reaction.”

“We enjoy coming here and I think just to see the smiles on the kids’ faces, see their reactions – you could see the reaction of a couple kids that opened the gifts there, that says it all,” Crosby said. “That’s why we’re here.”

Phil Kessel also received a priceless reaction from a child who has been wanting to meet him for a while now.

A few years ago, Chelsey Stokes took her son Cooper to his first Penguins game and told him he could pick out one thing from the souvenir calendar. He picked out a Lego figure of Phil Kessel, and ever since then, Cooper has been obsessed with anything Phil Kessel.

Cooper, who is waiting for a multi-organ transplant, turned 8 years old in October. Chelsey said all he wanted for his birthday was a Kessel jersey and “the real Phil Kessel.” Chelsey laughed and told him that wouldn’t be possible. But they learned about a week ago that Cooper’s wish might actually become a reality, and Chelsey couldn’t be more grateful that it did.

“This is amazing,” Chelsey said. “I didn’t actually think that this would happen in a lifetime. It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’ve been able to take him to games and he’s been able to see him from the seats, but this is a whole new surreal thing for him and I’m super blessed and thankful that this was able to happen.”

Chelsey said that on Tuesday night, Cooper was practicing what he was going to do when he first saw Kessel, and ultimately decided he would run up and give him a hug. And that’s exactly what Cooper did when Kessel arrived. Wearing his No. 81 sweater with the rolling backpack that contains all of his IV fluids in tow, Cooper dashed over to Kessel and threw his arms around his legs.

The two of them became fast friends, playing in the Lemieux Sibling Center for over half an hour before Kessel departed to visit other patients at the hospital.

“I heard he wanted to meet me or whatever, and that’s awesome,” Kessel said. “I’m happy I could be here and meet him and have a good day.

“It’s great. I love this day. I think we make the kids happy, and I love coming in here and getting to spend time with them. It’s a great day.”

–Michelle Crechiolo

One of the other groups, consisting of Brian Dumoulin, Patric Hornqvist, Jake Guentzel and Justin Schultz, visited over a dozen rooms.

The players took a photo with each of the kids they visited and their families, but a cool moment happened in infant Simon’s room. When asked by his parents if anyone wanted to hold him, Hornqvist obliged, and Simon calmly rested in his arms for the picture. This led to his teammates dubbing Hornqvist as “The Natural.”

“It’s great, you see those kids smile when you walk in,” Hornqvist said. “We give them a present, stay and talk a little bit, take a photo with them. They all love it, and we enjoy it too.”

While the Penguins spread holiday cheer around the hospital, equipped with Santa hats and presents, an abundance of smiles decked the halls.

One of those smiles was courtesy of six-year-old Aiden. Aiden let out an enormous smile when the time came for a picture, unveiling his missing front teeth. This led to Aiden’s mom stating he looks just like a hockey player with his smile, something that Justin Schultz, missing a tooth of his own, agreed to.

While the Penguins handed out signed calendars to each patient they visited, Marcus, 13, received five special signatures on his blood pressure pump. Marcus is a center for the Mt. Lebanon Hornets and expressed how he couldn’t wait to tell his teammates about his surprise visitors.

“It was amazing,” Marcus said. “I got to see some of my favorite players and get their autographs. It’s a dream come true.”

Seeing the smile gleaming from Marcus’ face after his interaction with the players shows how meaningful and profound the visit is for the children as well as their families.

“It’s for sure one of the best events we do through the whole season,” Hornqvist said. “It’s the holiday season, we make the kids and parents happy, and it’s always great to see a smile on their face.”

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Entering Saturday’s game against the Lightning, one storyline was about how Pittsburgh’s 25th ranked penalty kill would fare against Tampa Bay’s top-ranked power play.

That talk had reversed following Pittsburgh’s 5-2 win at PPG Paints Arena.

The Penguins’ power play was the difference in the game, striking three times – with all three goals coming during 5-on-3 play. Sidney Crosby had two while Phil Kessel scored one.

“I don’t know if that’s happened before,” laughed Patric Hornqvist after the game. “When you have a two-man advantage you need to score and I think we did a really good job today. We had different looks. We shot the puck when it was there and when we got those guys on the ice at the same time, they find those seams and it looks easy for them. They did a good job.”

Two of those goals actually came on the same sequence. With 3:48 remaining in the first period, Ondrej Palat high-sticked Crosby and drew blood, earning a double minor. While he was in the box, Anton Stralman tripped Conor Sheary and joined his teammate in timeout.

The Pens went with Kris Letang and Justin Schultz on the points – “Both those two shoot the puck and I think our mindset going into the game was we have to make sure we shoot the puck and retrieve and go from there,” said Hornqvist, who joined Crosby and Kessel up top.

Letang went to take a shot and his stick broke, the puck popping free in the slot. Lightning defenseman Dan Girardi went to clear it, but before he could get to it, Hornqvist lifted his stick and stole the puck for himself. He passed it to Crosby, who fired it across to Kessel at the backdoor for the goal.

“He worked so hard and on that one goal, it was all him,” Schultz said of Hornqvist. “He created it. Second effort and he does that every night, so it’s good.”

Exactly one minute and 23 seconds later, Kessel returned the favor to Crosby. He simply put the puck on net through traffic, where Crosby was waiting at the crease. He reached out and re directed it past Lightning goalie Peter Budaj for the score.

“Phil did a good job getting up high and finding the open seams, moving the puck,” said Schultz, who earned a pair of power-play assists. “Got shots and it worked tonight.”

Crosby struck again just 4:41 into the third period, when the Penguins received their second lengthy 5-on-3. He had the puck all alone at the right faceoff dot, and sniped it far side past Budaj.

“It was a good night. A couple 5-on-3s out there, so that’s nice,” Kessel said. “We needed that win tonight.”

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Thoughts, musings and observations from the Penguins’ 3-1 win over Arizona on Tuesday at PPG Paints Arena…

- When talking about Justin Schultz this morning, Mike Sullivan said he felt the defenseman could have a significant impact in his return to the lineup after missing six games with a concussion. Not only was it significant; it was immediate, as he scored on his first shift. He recognized an opportunity to jump up into the play, and ended up receiving a pass from Phil Kessel on the goal line. Despite the sharp angle, he shot anyway, and it got past Coyotes netminder Antti Raanta. Schultz ended up playing over 20 minutes in the game, including 5:27 on the power play, as he saw reps on the first power-play unit.

- It was a strong start for the Penguins, who scored twice in the first 3:07 of play. The Coyotes were coming off an overtime loss to Washington the night before, and the fatigue was apparent. The Penguins sensed that, and seized their opportunity. The best part about both goals was that they each came during 5-on-5 play. As a team, the Penguins had been struggling to score in that situation, as they had just two even-strength goals during their recent five-game road trip. “Finally,” Evgeni Malkin said. “Bad luck the last couple games.”

- As the Penguins got going at even-strength, they slowed down on the power play. The Coyotes are usually a disciplined team, but got into penalty trouble tonight, getting whistled for six total. Their penalty kill was ranked 29th in the league, and with how the Penguins’ 2nd-ranked power play had been producing, it seemed like Pittsburgh would dominate that matchup. Not so much. A big reason for their success had been their work ethic, playing with energy and enthusiasm. Tonight, they seemed lethargic, like they were moving in slow motion. That being said, given enough chances, a group this talented will eventually break through. And they did, with Kessel scoring on the final try.

- Sullivan reunited Malkin and Kessel for the game, and put Jake Guentzel on their wing. I’ve always liked the chemistry those three had dating back to Guentzel’s debut last November, and it was fun to see them pick it right back up, The move reaped rewards, as that line was on the ice for the first two goals. Malkin said they were excited to play together, and that they understood each other well. Malkin and Kessel each finished with a goal and two assists, and while Guentzel was held off the scoresheet, it’s only a matter of time before he breaks the schneid.

- It was an underrated performance from Matt Murray. The Coyotes looked overwhelmed at the beginning of the game, getting outscored and outshot by a wide margin, but they started to push back. And they created some quality chances, with most of them coming point blank from the top of the crease. Murray did a good job of coming up with clutch and timely saves throughout the game, even after stretches of inaction. Dating back to last year, including the playoffs, Murray is on a 12-0-1 unbeaten stretch at PPG Paints Arena.

- Tonight marked Rick Tocchet’s first game back in Pittsburgh since being named head coach of the Coyotes. The team played a tribute video with highlights of him both as a player and as a coach, and once it was done, both teams stood up and tapped their sticks in recognition as Tocchet waved to the crowd. Great moment for a great man.

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While the Penguins picked up just three points on their season-long five-game road swing through western Canada, one of the positives taken from the trip was the impact Chad Ruhwedel has had on keeping a battered blue line afloat.

Since Oct. 24, a span of seven games, Ruhwedel has averaged 19 minutes of ice time per game – fourth highest among Penguins defenseman. After starting the year as the team’s seventh defenseman, Ruhwedel got an opportunity to enter the lineup due to injuries and has since been quietly consistent.

“It means a lot, their trust in me,” Ruhwedel said. “The more you play, the better you’ll get every week, and you can just get into the game a little easier. Having some more minutes is nice, and I just have to stay with it.”

Thrusted into the lineup after Ian Cole’s injury from a blocked shot, the San Diego, Calif. native has seen an increased workload with Matt Hunwick and Justin Schultz both sidelined with concussions. He’s handled it well, and a lot of that coincides with his fit within the Penguins system.

“He’s played really well for us,” head coach Mike Sullivan reflected. “He’s a guy that you know exactly what you’re going to get, night in and night out from him. He’s really increased his intensity level since he’s been playing with us. He’s played a real solid two-way game.”

While Hunwick and Schultz are both on the verge of returning, as they are cleared for contact and practiced with regular jerseys on Monday, Ruhwedel’s play has provided a case to leave him in the lineup.

While the Penguins have had a lethal power play this season, as their 28.8-percent conversion rate is tied for second in the league, they have struggled to score at even strength throughout the first five weeks of the season. Ruhwedel, playing primarily all his minutes 5-on-5, has been arguably the Penguins’ strongest defenseman at even strength.

The UMass-Lowell product has provided a smooth game, highlighted by his skating ability and on-ice awareness.

“The thing we really like about Chad is his mobility,” Sullivan said. “He can get back to pucks quickly, he helps us get out of our end zone. He’s defending hard, he has a good stick, and he’s coachable. He’s done really a good job for us, he quietly goes about his business and plays an important role for this team.”

One of his biggest assets is his quick decision-making with the puck. This was showcased brilliantly on Oct. 12 against Tampa Bay, when Ruhwedel corralled a rebound in the defensive zone, and rather than just clearing the puck, took a few strides before launching a full-ice pass to Conor Sheary. He snuck behind the Lightning defense and buried the goal on a quick counter-attack play.

“He’s a solid player, he’s very dependable,” defenseman Brian Dumoulin said. “I know what he’s going to do with the puck, and that’s a good thing to have in a partner, the predictability. He’s a good skater, has a good shot, and he can work well with anyone.”

The 5’11″, 192-pound blueliner’s steady defensive game is what led to the Penguins pursuing him last off season after three years in the Buffalo Sabres organization, mostly spent with their American Hockey League affiliate, the Rochester Americans.

Ruhwedel initially started the 2016-17 season with Wilkes-Barre, but a strong start and banged-up blueline led to him playing in 34 NHL contests with Pittsburgh, scoring two goals, picking up eight assists, and finishing a plus-9.

It earned him a Stanley Cup ring and a two-year, one-way NHL contract this most recent offseason, and the next big step is becoming a constant presence in the lineup, even when everyone is healthy.

“I just need to play my game, keep doing what I’m doing,” Ruhwedel said. “Do more with the opportunities that I’m getting, and just try to make the most of it.”

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Thoughts, musings and observations from the Pens’ 4-2 loss against the Vancouver Caucks at Rogers Arena.

* The Pens fell in the finale of their season-long 5 game road trip. Although there was a lot to like about the game for Pittsburgh – its effort, chances generated, ice titled – it didn’t net them the desired result. Pittsburgh finished 1-3-1 on the trip, including 1-1-1 in western Canada.

* Jake Guentzel set a Pens’ rookie record with 13 playoffs goals last season, which was the 2nd-most ever in NHL history. But goals have been sparse for Guentzel at the start of the 2016-17 season. He only had 3 goals in the first 15 games of the current campaign. Guentzel has been getting chances, but the pucks just haven’t gone in.

The coaching staff, trying to get Guentzel going, gave him a shift with the top power-play unit. And the move worked. Sidney Crosby made a behind-the-back, between-the-legs pass from the slot to Phil Kessel at the near dot. Kessel immediately snapped the puck to the opposite part of the crease to Guentzel, who re-directed it in for his 4th of the season.

* Speaking of, the Pens’ power play continues to be a lethal weapon. They already ranked second in the NHL entering the contest against Vancouver. Pittsburgh only added to its success with another man-advantage tally against the Canucks.

The Pens’ power play has scored in 10 of the team’s 11 road games this season. Pittsburgh’s road power play is clicking at an astronomical 39.5-percent rate (15 of 38). With the Pens’ 5-on-5 scoring lacking, their power play has been a huge reason they’ve been able to have any success.

* Matt Murray had owned the Canucks during his brief NHL career. He was perfect in the first two outings against Vancouver, stopping all 56 shots against to record two shutouts. Vancouver broke that shutout streak at 127:07 minutes with a goal from Brock Boeser. He would add two more for the hat trick, and an assist for a 4-point night.

* The Pens defensive corps – already missing Justin Schultz and Matt Hunwick with concussions – took a beating in the game. Brian Dumoulin was hobbled while blocking a shot. Olli Maatta was stunned when he was tripped and went headfirst into the boards. Kris Letang laid out his body to stop a pass in the defensive zone and his momentum carried him into the boards. He played the rest of the shift hunched over in pain. And Frank Corrado was launched by Derek Dorsett into the boards. He left the game briefly, but returned. It was a bruising night for the blue line, but they battled through it.

The forwards didn’t have things much better as winger Phil Kessel was slew-footed and fell backwards on the ice, jarring his head. He left for the remainder of the second period, but was back on the ice to start the final frame and finished the game.

* Credit must be given to goaltender Jacob Markstrom. He made several incredible saves throughout the course of the game. Particularly on Kessel, who could have had three goals on the night with all the glorious chances he had. But Markstrom wasn’t having any of it.

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The Pittsburgh Penguins had one of those four-aspirin aftermaths in October, after winning their second consecutive Stanley Cup in June. They gave up 50 goals in 13 games last month, which is one Arizona Coyotes dumpster fire away from being worst in the NHL. The Penguins lost to the Chicago Blackhawks, Tampa Bay Lightning and Winnipeg Jets by a combined score of 24-3. They’ve already expelled their backup goalie and traded for a depth forward.

But they’re 7-5-1. Which is fine, all things considered.

Here are the four major points of concern for the Penguins:

Kris Letang

Letang had an epically bad opening month, with just two even-strength points in 10 games (although he had six on the power play). Letang skated to an NHL-worst minus-14, but seeing as how plus/minus tells you nothing, we’ll go to the possession story: He’s minus-10 in Corsi counts at even strength and has only finished on the negative side of that ledger once in his nine-year career. (The only Penguins defenseman seeing regular time with that kind of shot-attempt deficit is Justin Schultz at minus-24 in 10 games, and he’s currently out with a concussion.)

There’s no question that Letang’s offseason preparation was interrupted by neck surgery, so maybe that’s what has led to a parade of blown coverages and intercepted passes. His 25 giveaways are second-most in the NHL this season.

Yet the Penguins are skating him out like there’s nothing inherently wrong with his game, to the tune of 26:30 on average. It’s been too much, too soon. GM Jim Rutherford told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this week, “He’s coming off a very serious injury. I believe he’s tried to do too much. I believe we’ve played him way too many minutes because we’ve had to with the injuries.”

Their starts stink

The Penguins have been outscored in the first period 21-10, second only to the Montreal Canadiens for opening-period futility. Pittsburgh leads the league in first-period goals surrendered, giving up one more than the New York Rangers (20), whose lack of preparedness in the opening frame has nearly cost coach Alain Vigneault his job.

The Penguins are getting off to slow starts, especially on the road. They’re also 1-4-0 when their opponents score first.

The bottom six

‘Twas a time in recent Penguins history when a general manager was fired for not having the third and fourth lines in order.

This isn’t to suggest that current GM Rutherford is in Ray Shero territory — hell, after two straight Cups, he could probably run for governor were it not what we assume are citizenship requirements — but rather to say that the Penguins’ bottom six is in its weakest state in years.

The losses of Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz and Matt Cullen will likely be felt most in the postseason, when their heroism during the last two runs to the Cup was invaluable. But Pittsburgh misses them now too: The Penguins have gotten 12 points so far at 5-on-5 from their bottom-six forwards, which is equal to what Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have generated on their own.

Getting Riley Sheahan from the cap-strapped Detroit Red Wings was a solid addition. He’s been fine, although not the ultimate answer at third-line center. While one assumes that Rutherford will need to add some low-cost veteran adornments to his lineup for another Cup run, one hopes that players such as Tom Kuhnhackl and Greg McKegg can hold the fort during the regular season.

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Here are the 3 biggest takeaways from the Pens’ Tuesday afternoon practice in Edmonton’s Rogers Place.

1. Addressing the losses

The Pens have suffered a few ugly losses already during the 2017-18 season. There was a 10-1 shellacking by Chicago, a 7-1 setback to Tampa Bay and, the most recent, Sunday’s 7-1 drubbing to Winnipeg.

To have one lopsided loss can be tossed off as just happenstance, twice a coincidence. But three times is a trend that the coaching staff wants to halt immediately.

“There are going to be nights over the course of an 82-game schedule where it doesn’t go your way. This early in the season, our team has had a few too many of them,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “It’s not so much what our opponents are doing do us, it’s what we’re doing to ourselves. That’s unacceptable.

“It’s something that is within our control and the answers are within that dressing room.”

Captain Sidney Crosby feels that the common denominator in the losses has been the Pens’ play in the first period.

“Our start, we’ve put ourselves behind early and by a bunch,” he said. “It’s not a great position to be in on back-to-back nights. Those games, you have to manage them better and give yourself a better chance. When you start off and it’s 3-0 in the first five minutes, it’s hard to climb out of that.”

Some in the media have speculated that fatigue may be a factor for the Penguins having had two long championship runs and playing over 200 games in the last two seasons with short summers. Sullivan wasn’t having any of that.

“For me that’s all nonsense,” he said. “To me, it’s a hockey game. We have to be ready to play.”

2. Jarry comes home

The Pens recalled goalie Tristan Jarry from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Monday and he joined the team on the ice for practice on Tuesday. With the club having back-to-back games against Edmonton on Wednesday and Calgary on Thursday, Jarry could see action in one of the two contests.

“This is where I want to be and where every kid dreams of being when they grow up,” Jarry said. “It’s something that you work hard for, and every year you strive to be better and better. It’s something I work for every year.”

Jarry, 22, made his NHL debut in last year’s regular-season finale against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. He stopped 22 shots on that night.

“It’s something you can look back on,” he said. “It was one of those first experiences. There’s nothing like it.”

Jarry, who was an AHL All-Star last season while helping WBS lead the league with the lowest goals-against average, has won three straight games prior to the recall.

Jarry played his junior hockey in Edmonton with the Oil Kings from 2011-15. His best season was in 2013-14 when he won 44 games and led Edmonton to the WHL championship and Memorial Cup berth.

So coming to Edmonton is like coming home.

“With how many years that I was here there are so many friends that I’ve kept close with” Jarry said. “That’s a big thing for me and I love it here.”

3. Practice info

Defensemen Justin Schultz and Matt Hunwick, both out with concussions, have begun skating and could possibly join the team later on during the current road swing. They are currently in Pittsburgh.

All of the Pens’ healthy players took part in the team’s practice.

The Pens used the following workflow…

Sheary-Crosby-Hornqvist

Kuhnhackl-Malkin-Rust

Guentzel-Sheahan-Kessel

Hagelin/Archibald-McKegg-Reaves

The defense rotated.