Coming off a shellacking from Buffalo the previous weekend, the Penguins were looking to rebound but would have a tough schedule ahead of them. Facing the Rangers on Tuesday, then the Lightning and Blue Jackets in back-to-back weekend games, the Penguins were not only looking to rebound but also use the mini-homestand to separate themselves from the pack in the Eastern Conference standings. Coming into the week with 71 points, the Penguins found themselves in 6th place. At week’s end things would be a bit more favorable for the surging Pens.
- Penguins v. Rangers (Tue, February 21st): Penguins 2 – Rangers 0
In an ultimate goaltenders’ duel Marc-Andre Fleury outperformed ‘King’ Henrik Lundqvist, stopping 27 shots to earn his 3rd shutout of the season – also tying Tom Barrasso’s career franchise mark of 22 shutouts. Evgeni Malkin and Steve Sullivan scored second period goals, and the Penguins turned in what Sully described as the team’s “first complete 60-minute game in a long time.” For long stretches of the game, the Penguins controlled possession in the Rangers’ defensive zone, winning puck battles with vigor and consistency. On this night, the roles were reversed and the Penguins were the superior club. Great response to a poor effort against the Sabres. No better way to start the week.
- Penguins v. Lightning (Sat, February 25th): Penguins 8 – Lightning 1
After what was a huge ‘statement’ game against the New York Rangers earlier in the week, the Penguins apparently decided they needed to send another message to their Eastern Conference opponents by absolutely thrashing the Tampa Bay Lightning in a Saturday afternoon affair. The Penguins got some great bounces early, on goals from Chris Kunitz and Matt Cooke, and they never relinquished the momentum. Jordan Staal continued his hot streak with two goals and an assist, and Evgeni Malkin just went ballistic, posting a hat-trick and adding an assist for good measure en route to an 8-1 domination of the Lightning. Marc-Andre Fleury was outstanding for the second game in a row, stopping 34/35 shots and making some pretty ridiculous reaction-saves including a sprawling effort on young sniper, Steven Stamkos. The Penguins would be back in action in less than 24 hours to face the Columbus Blue Jackets in what many saw as a “trap” game.
- Penguins v. Blue Jackets (Sun, February 26th): Penguins 4 – Blue Jackets 2
Pretty much your standard trap-game. Surging team looking to solidify home-ice advantage in the playoffs facing off against the last place club looking to play ‘spoiler.’ Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme. The only problem: the Penguins are a resilient hockey club. Going down 1-0 early on a shorthanded tally from Rick Nash, the Penguins – backstopped by Brad Thiessen in his 1st career NHL start – found life and scored four unanswered goals against a surprisingly tough Curtis Sanford. Malkin continued his dominance by scoring a clutch 1st period goal, and the Penguins received goals from Vitale, Letang and Dupuis. As I mentioned earlier, last year’s AHL Goaltender of the Year, Brad Thiessen, got his 1st career NHL start for the Pittsburgh Penguins. The young netminder showed incredible poise, stopping 22/24 Columbus shots including a point-blank opportunity on Rick Nash in the third period. The kid was about as good as it gets for your first NHL start – cool as a cucumber. The win makes three straight, and 3-for-3 for the Penguins on their current homestand. Winning.
The Penguins have a light week upcoming, although the team will be on the road for both games this week – Wednesday in Dallas and Saturday in Colorado. The Dallas Stars have dealt with the injury to young-star Jamie Benn with ultimate character, and the club has vaulted themselves into a playoff position (8th in West) as we begin the week. Similarly, the Colorado Avalanche find themselves right on the “bubble” in 9th place tied at 70 points with the Dallas Stars – Stars have games in hand. Both teams will be incredibly hungry to earn a win against the Penguins, and at this time of year there are no easy games. The Penguins look to increase their 3-game winning streak on Wednesday in ‘Big D.’
Four is better than three. Do it.