With a five-point cushion atop the Eastern Conference standings and a 15-point lead in the Metropolitan Division, the Pittsburgh Penguins find themselves in a comfortable position as the Olympic break approaches.
Many of their opponents, however, can’t say the same. So, when the Penguins headed west to face the Los Angeles Kings and Phoenix Coyotes, they encountered two hungry clubs – sitting at sixth and ninth in the Western Conference, respectively, separated by four points and willing to scrap for every one.
Pittsburgh managed a split, beating the Kings, 4-1, and losing to the Coyotes, 3-1, in two tight contests that were indicative of the types of games they can expect down the stretch. Los Angeles allowed the Penguins just 22 shots and Phoenix only 24 in two hard-hitting, tight-checking battles.
“They’re tight games, tough games,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “There weren’t a lot of scoring opportunities, there weren’t a lot of chances for us. We could’ve shot the puck a little bit more, but we’re [mostly] in a one-goal game and we expect these games to be like that. That’s the game we’ve got to be able to play.”
“I’m sure they’re desperate,” said defenseman Matt Niskanen. “Things are tight out here in the West, and [Phoenix] played like it. They checked hard; we had to work for every chance that we got. They didn’t give us anything.”
And, when a hungry team finds a way to capitalize on its opportunities, the Penguins – whose high-powered offense has often bailed them out of jams this season – can expect to see even fewer of their own.
Evgeni Malkin’s goal less than a minute in against the Kings made all the difference in how Pittsburgh was able to play against the league’s top-ranked defense, while Phoenix was largely able to shut things down – save for another goal from Malkin – after staking out a 2-0 lead.
“I think, against teams like this, getting a lead is huge,” said winger Jussi Jokinen, who racked up three points (1G, 2A) against the Kings. “If they get a lead, they know how to play with it, and it can be tough.”
The Coyotes, meanwhile, “were able to find a couple goals, and they’re a pretty good team with the lead,” Niskanen said.
“I think they play a good team defense, and I think we didn’t make it tough enough on them with the puck in their zone,” added captain Sidney Crosby. “They’re definitely good at blocking shots, getting sticks on pucks, so you have to give them credit. But I don’t think we did a good enough job of creating anything. We could’ve done more there.”
For the Penguins, that comes from playing their puck-possession game.
“I don’t think we tested [Phoenix goaltender Mike Smith] nearly enough with our shot mentality,” Bylsma said. “We passed up too many opportunities when we had them to get the puck [to the net].
“We need to continue to play better with the puck. The last two games, I think we’ve done that to a large degree. [Phoenix] was a tough game, there wasn’t a lot out there, and that’s the kind of games we expect. And we have to be able to play a patient game, not be taking chances with the way we play or the way we play with the puck. That’s been a focus for our team.”
The Penguins can expect more of the same leading up to the break as they host the Ottawa Senators and New York Rangers this week. The two clubs are 12th and sixth in the Eastern Conference, respectively, but are separated by only five points.
The Penguins will also visit the Buffalo Sabres, the league’s last-place team, mid-week, and will need to guard against the kind of poor effort they’ve turned in a few times this season against teams well below them in the standings.
“I don’t think we really think about that a whole lot. Maybe we should,” Crosby said. “I think we’re aware that teams are fighting for position, and I think we expect our best every night, regardless of where the team we’re playing against is in the standings. But it’s something to be aware of; they’re going to [come out] hard.”
“I thought our energy level and compete were pretty high [in the loss in Phoenix] but, if it’s going to be a low-scoring game, we’ve got to get better at finding ways to win those ones,” Niskanen said. “For us, just continue to generate those chances, and we’ve got to be comfortable in those types of games. I think that’s just the way it’s going to be against any team that’s in the [playoff] picture. The further you go, the tighter things get.”