Riding a 3-game winning streak the Penguins entered a somewhat slow week, only facing two opponents – Dallas and Colorado. Both teams are in the hunt to solidify one of the remaining two playoff spots in the Western Conference, and as such represented a major obstacle to the Penguins’ own hopes of clinching a #4 seed in the East. In particular, Wednesday night’s affair in Dallas presented a number of challenges to a streaking Pens club.
- Penguins @ Stars (Wed, February 29): Penguins 4 – Stars 3 (SO)
The lasting impression of the Pens’ shootout victory over the Dallas Stars earlier in the week is surely Eric Nystrom’s hit on Kris Letang, which was written about last week by my colleague, Letangueray. Everyone’s personal stance on the hit aside, the Penguins fought through what was an incredibly physical game against the “pesky” Stars to eke out a 4-3 win via the skills competition. Marc-Andre Fleury turned in another quality effort, stopping 30/33 Dallas shots. Sullivan added a goal as he and Staal continue to make beautiful music together, and the Penguins also netted goals from Kunitz and Adams en route to the win. Dupuis scored the winner in the 4th round of the shootout, and Fleury shut the door on Michael Ryder to put a stamp on a fresh 4-game winning streak. I would be remiss not to mention that Evgeni Malkin joined in on the festivities, adding his 42nd assist of the season on Kunitz’s third period tally.
- Penguins @ Avalanche (Sat, March 3): Penguins 5 – Avalanche 1
Coming into Denver on Saturday night, the Penguins capitalized on what was a dog’s breakfast of a game by the Avs to spank the home team 5-1. The Penguins received first period goals in quick succession from Aaron Asham and Deryk Engelland and never allowed the Avalanche to get back into the game. Aaron Asham’s importance to this team cannot be understated, and everyone is glad to have him healthy after different “nagging” injuries this season. He’s filling in the “Max Talbot” role on this team by continuing to score clutch goals at different times, i.e. the first-round playoff series against Tampa Bay last spring. Evgeni Malkin scored his 38th goal of the season, and Steve Sullivan continued his hot stretch of play with a goal and assist. Fleury stopped 35/36 Avalanche shots en route to his 34th win on the year, only allowing a third period goal to Matt Hunwick on which he had no chance.
The story of the week for the Penguins was “secondary scoring.” Of the 8 goals scored against Dallas and Colorado, only 2 were scored by the Penguins top line of Kunitz-Malkin-Neal. Instead, the recently formed line of Sullivan-Staal-Dupuis has come come to the forefront. Sullivan is currently riding a 7-game point streak (3g, 8a) while Staal is on a 4-game point streak and has 12 points (6g) over his past 10 games. In a development that could partially offset the loss of star puck-mover Kris Letang, the Penguins now have a veritable one-two punch of reliable scoring lines, spearheaded by Malkin/Neal on the one hand and Staal/Sullivan on the other. A possible return of Sidney Crosby could just be excessive.
The Penguins have a big week on the slate starting tonight with a big contest against the Pacific Division-leading Phoenix Coyotes at Consol Energy Center. Facing off against hot goaltender Mike Smith (who before losing two straight had won 11 decisions in a row) will be no easy task as the Penguins look to extend their current 5-game winning streak. On Wednesday and Friday the Penguins have two very “winnable” games at home against the Maple Leafs and Panthers, respectively. The Leafs have been sliding down the Eastern Conference standings for the past couple weeks and recently fired coach Ron Wilson in favor of new bench-boss – and ex-Penguins defenseman – Randy Carlisle; the Panthers sit 3rd overall in the conference, courtesy of a 4-point lead over Winnipeg in the Southeast Division. They will look to put their mark on their playoff position when they visit the Steel City on Friday. The Penguins close out the week with a Sunday matinee against the slumping Boston Bruins, who after nearly two months of mediocre hockey find themselves barely clinging to a 3-point lead over Ottawa in the Northeast. None of these teams will be eager to roll over for the Penguins, so we should be in store for an exciting four games this week.
Six is better than five. Do it.