Remember when the Pittsburgh Penguins limped out of the gate to start the season? When their record was inconsistent, No. 1 goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was off to his worst-ever start and they couldn’t find a way to get a win on home ice?
That’s all feeling like ancient history now. With an 8-0-1 record in their last nine games, including a current, six-game winning streak, the Penguins are the NHL’s hottest team and find themselves just two points behind the division-leading Philadelphia Flyers and conference-leading Washington Capitals.
Fleury has gotten the string of consecutive starts he needed to find his rhythm and regain his confidence, going 7-0-1 with a 1.60 goals-against average in his last eight.
“Physically, I don’t feel different, but you’re more confident when you win, more relaxed,” Fleury said. The Stanley Cup-winning netminder hasn’t changed any of his fundamentals, nor does he think he’s seeing the puck better – “my eyes are the same as they were before,” he joked – but credits the Penguins’ overall turnaround with his own.
“The team’s playing better in front of me,” he said. “They’re not giving up as many scoring chances, not as many odd-man rushes, and that helps a lot.”
The stingy defense in front of Fleury includes what is now the NHL’s best penalty-killing unit, stifling 90.2 percent of opponents’ power play chances. The Penguins have gone eight consecutive games without letting up a goal on the man-advantage, killing off 27 power plays during that stretch.
“They’re doing an unbelievable job, from the goaltender to the way they’re blocking shots to their preparation,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “All those guys are competing and making it tough for other teams. It’s great to see, and it’s huge for us.”
Pittsburgh’s power play is hovering around the middle of the pack, but it’s coming through with more regularity than it was early in the season. The team is also getting good production from its blueline, with Alex Goligoski scoring his team-leading third game-winning goal in a 2-1 win Friday over Ottawa, and Kris Letang racking up three assists in a 4-1 win Saturday over Calgary.
“I’m more active everywhere on the ice and, when I’m out there four-on-four, I can almost play as a forward. I’m always joining the rush,” Letang said. The Penguins’ offensive-minded blueliners are also helped by the coaching staff’s tendency to pair them with more stay-at-home types – Brooks Orpik, in Letang’s case. “Every time I take a chance, he’s always there to back me up, so that’s in the back of my mind,” he said.
Leading Pittsburgh’s offensive charge, of course, is Crosby, who leapfrogged Tampa’s Steven Stamkos on Saturday for the league’s scoring lead. In the process, he almost one-upped Penguins owner Mario Lemeiux’s 1988 feat of scoring five goals in five different ways.
With goals at even strength, on the power play and a combined empty-net/shorthanded goal, an unsuccessful penalty shot on Flames goaltender Mikka Kiprusoff in the first period was all that stood between Crosby scoring five different ways on just four goals.
“Don’t tell me that,” Crosby laughed when learning of his near-accomplishment. “That’s one thing I never thought would be beat so, to know I was that close, that hurts.”
But an even bigger accomplishment for the Penguins is the better job they’re doing of sticking to their game plan, keeping pressure in the offensive zone, and not getting discouraged if it’s talking a while to pay off – as it did Saturday, when Pittsburgh fired 24 shots in the first period alone but came up empty against Kiprusoff.
“It did pass through my mind that, when you fire that many shots at a goalie, you feel good about the way you’re playing and it’s still 0-0, it might take another 24 shots in the second period to get one,” said head coach Dan Bylsma.
“You get that many shots and it’s probably easy to sway a bit and get away from the way you need to play, but I felt like, for the most part, we didn’t,” Crosby said.
And the Penguins have started to establish something resembling a home-ice advantage at the new CONSOL Energy Center, where they’re now on a four-game winning streak and, at 7-5-1, above .500 on the season.
“I’d like to think so,” Bylsma said. “We’ve done a good job (8-3-1) on the road and, early on, we didn’t get the results at home. But now, putting the wins together, it’s starting to feel like home, and our fans are starting to make it feel like home as well with the atmosphere in the building. We’d like to keep that going.”
“That was definitely one of our main concerns, to make this an unforgiving place for the visitors to play,” said backup goaltender Brent Johnson, who, despite making his first start since November 10, came within 6:57 of pitching a shutout in Saturday’s win.
The Penguins may be on a roll, but that hasn’t stopped them from seeking out ways to continue fine-tuning their game. For Bylsma, he’d like to see his players continue to establish the tone early, as they did against Calgary.
“I think the first and second [periods] were maybe the best we’ve played in the last few – coming out and dictating, playing in the offensive zone, getting pucks to the net. We had seven shots on our first power play. That’s the way you dictate a game, that’s the way you put a team back on its heels, and I think that’s something we can do a better job of.
“There’s a lot of [positive] aspects of our game right now – the power play gets another goal for us, our penalty killing, the goaltending. But, I think if you ask in that room, making decisions with the puck that allow us to get to our game like we did in the first is something we can continue to get better at.”