You wake up on the hotel penthouse floor in a haze, vaguely identifying the empty bottles and the inflatable pool toys in the bubble bath. There's a chicken roaming around. There's a tiger in the bathroom. Stu appears to be missing a tooth.
It's "The Hangover," and you're counting down the hours until the throbbing subsides.
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:
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.
That goalie situation
Antti Niemi was in and out of Pittsburgh faster than you can say "damn you, expansion-draft rules," which means Matt Murray's safety cushion is now Tristan Jarry, a.k.a. "Plan C." As my colleague Emily Kaplan noted in Wednesday's Morning Skate, that has to change, and there are goalie options out there that won't carry a Marc-Andre Fleury-level cap hit.
Well, that was gloomy.
Here, let's hook up the IV and get them through this hangover with reasons for optimism:
The October schedule was horrendous
Two midweek back-to-back games, against the St. Louis Blues and Blackhawks and then the Washington Capitals and Lightning. Two back-to-back weekend games, and both times the Penguins gave up seven goals in the back end of them. (The Chicago game, also a back-end one, saw Pittsburgh surrender 10 goals.) This wasn't the Vegas Golden Knights getting seven home games to find their footing; this was a defending champion with a lot of miles on it facing many of the NHL's elite teams right off the hop. The November schedule looks better.
They're winning games
Granted, it's taken clutch goals from Phil Kessel and Conor Sheary two get them, as they both have a pair of game-winners, but the Penguins are not in the same precarious place where we see the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers, despite similar inauspicious starts. The Penguins are finding ways to win, which is sort of what they do, because ...
They're thinking about June
Although Crosby likely treats a Friday night October game against the Florida Panthers with the same importance as a Stanley Cup Final game, the same can't be said for everyone else. They're thinking about the long road ahead, the energy it takes to travel it and how "the real season" doesn't begin until April. Can this mindset torpedo your season? Sure, as recent Los Angeles Kings teams will tell you. But it's hard to imagine that coach Mike Sullivan and Crosby are going to allow it to fester.
The Penguins will be fine, even if they currently don't look it.