At the close of last week the Pittsburgh Penguins watched in dismay as their 11-game winning streak reached its end when Scott Hartnell scored in the dying moments of Overtime to help the Flyers edge the Penguins 3-2 in Philadelphia. The week of March 19th brought four challenging games for the Penguins as they inch closer to the top-spot in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference. Entering the week just one point back of the New York Rangers, the Penguins faced off against the Jets, Predators, Senators, and Devils – a tough four game sked, three of which were played at Consol (lack of) Energy Center. All four games were of tremendous importance as the Jets, Preds, Sens, and Devils are all engaged in tight playoff races of their own. No easy games left on the Penguins schedule.
- Penguins v. Jets (Tue, March 20): Penguins 8 – Jets 4
Coming off a tough loss against Philadelphia, the Penguins looked to rebound against the Jets – a team against which the Penguins have had no trouble scoring heaps of goals against this season. In what has become a recent trend for the Penguins, the boys in black filled the nets with astounding regularity, managing a four-goal victory over the Jets in what was – for a large portion of the contest – a relatively close affair. Goals by the Penguins were quickly answered by the Jets on a number of occasions, and late in the 2nd period the Penguins held a slim 5-4 advantage before adding three more tallies over the final 23+ minutes of the game. James Neal potted three goals – and added an assist – for his second career hat trick and career-high 4 point game. Sidney Crosby added 4 points of his own – all assists – and Evgeni Malkin dazzled with 2 goals and 3 assists to extend his points-lead over Steven Stamkos. Mama Malkin has been good to all of us. Another drubbing of the Jets was just what the doctor ordered to get the Pittsburgh Penguins back to their winning ways.
- Penguins v. Predators (Thu, March 22): Penguins 5 – Predators 1
The Penguins enjoyed filling the nets against Winnipeg’s Ondrej Pavelec (and Chris Mason) so much they decided to repeat their dominance against Pekka Rinne and the Nashville Predators when they came to town past Thursday. The Penguins had their hands full with one of the top teams in the Western Conference, but the all-world Rinne was not up to his usual standards on this night. The Penguins opened up a two-goal lead just over four minutes into the game on goals from Evgeni Malkin and Pascal Dupuis. I would be remiss not to mention Dupuis’ current point streak, and career-high point production. Every tally he gets from this point is just gravy. Sweet, sweet gravy for the only player left over (on either Pittsburgh or Atlanta/Winnipeg) from the 2008 Marian Hossa trade. Cooke and Kunitz also added goals in the second period to give the Penguins a 4-0 lead before Alexander Radulov scored his first goal since returning to Nashville from the KHL. Rads will surely be a very important piece for the Predators’ playoff run. His skill, size, and speed are more than welcomed on a team more known for its defense and goaltending than its penchant for high-powered offense. Evgeni Malkin would add a final nail in the Preds’ coffin early in the third period with his 45th goal of the season. MVP, MVP, MVP… James Neal followed up his 4-point outing against Winnipeg with another (4 assists), propelling him into the top five in league scoring. Marc-Andre Fleury picked up his league-leading 40th victory of the season, making 29/30 stops. Take that Fleury haters.
- Penguins @ Senators (Sat, March 24): Penguins 4 – Senators 8
The once again streaking Penguins were in for a major reality check against the Ottawa Senators, a team currently fighting for its playoff life in a surprisingly competitive Northeast Division. Courtesy of Matt Cooke and his two first period tallies, the Penguins went into the first intermission with a 2-1 lead; however, the floodgates opened up during the second frame and the Penguins could not weather the storm. Rapid fire goals from Gonchar, Chris Phillips, and Kyle Turris gave the Senators a 4-2 advantage midway through the second period, but the Penguins’ Tyler Kennedy answered Turris’ goal with one of his own just 14 seconds later to bring the Penguins back within striking distance. Daniel Alfredsson scored a backbreaking shorthanded goal in the last minutes of the second period, reclaiming a two-goal lead for the Sens going into the final twenty. Sidney Crosby’s third goal of the season gave the Penguins some life during the third period, but the Senators would answer with three more goals to double up the Penguins 8-4 and end their current winning streak at a measly two games. Brad Thiessen stopped 20/28 shots and was saddled with his first loss of the season in his first NHL road game. Back to action on Sunday for a rather important tilt against the New Jersey Devils.
- Penguins v. Devils (Sun, March 25): Penguins 5 – Devils 2
Against a team – and goaltender – that usually gives them fits, the Penguins were simply the better team in Sunday night’s game at Consol Energy Center. Opening the scoring just over a minute into the game, Chris Kunitz scored his 23rd goal of the season. Penguins fans can only be left to imagine how many goals Kunitz could possibly have this season if he wasn’t “responsible” for several disallowed goals. In a perfect world Malkin, Kunitz, and Neal are all 30-goal scorers. Zach Parise answered back past the 5-minute mark of the period (his 30th goal of the year) to bring the Devils even again, but the Penguins scored the next two – goals from Jordan Staal and Pascal Dupuis – to open up a 3-1 lead after forty minutes. It is interesting to note that all three Penguins goalscorers through the first two periods registered their 23rd goals of the season (Kunitz, Staal, Dupuis). Apparently the Number 23 isn’t just important to Jim Carrey. Ilya Kovalchuk scored early in the third period to cut the Penguins lead to one, but Sidney Crosby answered just over a minute later on a sweet, self-made breakaway. Evgeni Malkin added an EN goal in the final minutes (his 46th goal of the season) to increase the Penguins lead to 5-2. There were no “standout” dominant performances from last night’s game, although 5 different Penguins players registered multi-point games (Dupuis, Staal, Kunitz, Malkin, Crosby [1g, 1a each]). Quietly, Fleury had another outstanding effort last night while stopping 32/34 shots en route to his 41st win of the season, an NHL benchmark.
The Penguins are starting to fill the nets with regularity against some of the best goaltenders and defensive teams in the league. Averaging 5+ goals over the course of the week, the Penguins went 3/4 and remain just one point back of the New York Rangers for top spot in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference. With the team really starting to come together, and with a full compliment of players, Dan Bylsma and the Pittsburgh Penguins are poised to make a very deep run in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. It’s beginning to look a lot like playoff hockey, as every game brings us one step closer to the greatest postseason in professional sports. The road to the Cup goes through Pittsburgh this year, mark it. Go Pens.