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5 things to watch for Penguins after All-Star break

Jonathan Bombulie
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Pittsburgh Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin brings the puck past Florida Panthers’ Colton Sceviour (7) during the second period Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, in Pittsburgh.

Whether they wanted to or not, the set-up of their schedule forced the Pittsburgh Penguins into a midseason moment of contemplation.

After losing 7-3 to Vegas last Saturday night, the Penguins went on a seven-day break that will end when they return to practice Sunday afternoon in Cranberry.

Before the break, they went 26-16-6. They had great moments, like an eight-game winning streak in late December and early January. They had miserable moments, like when they lost nine of 10 games during a November stretch. In other words, they were inconsistent.

After the break, they will have 34 games left in the regular season, starting with a home matchup against New Jersey on Monday night.

If they’re serious about contending for a championship, it’s time to show it.

“I think we show glimpses of what we’re able to do,” Kris Letang said. “Obviously, it’s a hard thing to do for 60 minutes. We have to put in our brains that until the end of the year, it’s going to be a tough fight to get in the playoffs. We better start playing with that same edge that we’re able to do.”

Here are five things to watch as the Penguins come out of their midseason break.

1. Metropolitan mash-up

The top four teams in the Metropolitan Division are separated by five points, from the surprising first-place Islanders with 63 points to the fourth-place Penguins with 58.

The Penguins will play five of their next six games at home and won’t leave the Eastern time zone until the end of March. An opportunity to climb the ranks is right in front of them.

2. Malkin’s trajectory

Nothing would help the Penguins take advantage of that opportunity more than a return to form for Evgeni Malkin.

He was brilliant in the early part of the season, terrible in the middle and started to show some signs of coming out of his funk before the break.

3. Murray’s net

Matt Murray has gone 10-1-0 with a .944 save percentage since returning from an injury in the middle of December.

The Penguins have only three sets of back-to-back games the rest of the way. If coach Mike Sullivan wants to lean heavily on Murray, he has an opportunity.

4. Pair to watch

In their first 18 games playing together, the Penguins outscored opponents 13-5 at even strength when Marcus Pettersson and Jack Johnson were on the ice at even strength. In the last four games before the break, the Penguins were outscored 7-0 when they were on the ice.

A strong showing from the Pettersson-Johnson pair makes everything fit into place better on the blue line.

5. Making moves

A little less than a month remains before the Feb. 25 trade deadline, and general manager Jim Rutherford has some decisions to make.

Most pressingly, once Justin Schultz returns from a broken leg in the next couple of weeks, the Penguins will have nine NHL-caliber defensemen. At least one will have to go.

Most importantly, he will have to decide whether it’s time to move on from Derick Brassard as the team’s third-line center and whether he can find a suitable replacement on the trade market.

He also will have to decide whether the team needs an upgrade on the left wing, perhaps in an effort to get Malkin’s season jump-started.

With Casey DeSmith signed to a three-year extension, goalie prospect Tristan Jarry is a tradeable commodity, and Rutherford has never been shy about dealing away first-round draft picks.

Add those assets to Brassard and the extra defenseman, and Rutherford probably has enough of a stockpile to do some shopping, even if salary cap constraints will maike it difficult.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.