In a 17-3 run that saw them build a seven-point cushion atop the Eastern Conference, the Pittsburgh Penguins hadn’t always brought their A game, but found a way to eke out wins – even when they were guilty of the kinds of lapses that aren’t likely to result in consistent success.
Friday in Edmonton, when leads of 2-0 and 3-2 evaporated into a 4-3 overtime loss, the Penguins’ inattention to the basics finally cost them. And, for defenseman Rob Scuderi, it wasn’t necessarily a bad lesson to learn.
“If you’re going to try and play hockey like the Harlem Globetrotters, you’re going to get burned,” he told reporters after the loss. “We continue to make the same mistakes, go for the same highlight-reel plays. That might look good on the highlight reels every now and then, but it’s not a formula for winning.”
The Penguins didn’t have to wait long for the opportunity to redeem themselves, winning 2-1 in Calgary the following night. It was a positive step for a team that knew it had to stop relying on a star-studded lineup to bail itself out of avoidable jams.
“It wasn’t just me. I might’ve had a quote that caught some attention, but all the guys in the locker room see it, know it, say it,” Scuderi said Tuesday. “I think, for us, you’ve got to play fundamentals. Just because we have high-end skill doesn’t mean we have to play a high-risk game.
“Your skill is there to take advantage of those situations when they are there to take; I think we just have to do a better job of realizing when they’re there and when they’re not. There’s definitely a time when you have to make a percentage play with the puck.”
If the Penguins want to spend some time practicing those fundamentals, they’ll have ample opportunity. After a day off Sunday, they returned to the ice to prepare to host the Washington Capitals Wednesday – a game that will be the Penguins’ only one in eight days.
During that time, they could start to see some injured players return to the lineup. Top-four defenseman Paul Martin, who’s missed 22 games with a fractured tibia, and forward Jayson Megna, out 12 games with a knee injury, are scheduled to be evaluated by team doctors Wednesday. Forward Brian Gibbons, injured Saturday at Calgary, could also return from a week out with a lower-body injury, while star forward James Neal, day-to-day with an upper-body injury also sustained Saturday, will have time to recover.
“I haven’t played the [full] season; I was hurt but, for a lot of these guys, it’s probably the biggest break they’re going to have for a while so you can try to use it for rest,” Scuderi said. “For our team, we have a lot of guys out; it’d be nice to have those guys have a whole extra week to get better without having to miss a game. So, I think for our team, it’s a big benefit right now.”
“The rest is obviously a big advantage, but I think [so is] getting an opportunity to use those practices,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “You don’t get an opportunity to practice that hard during the season so, to have a week to really get some good practice, I think that’s important. It’s a good time of year for it. I guess the flip side is you don’t really get a chance to build on the momentum from the [2-0-1] road trip, but we want to make sure we play well on Wednesday and use that rest to our advantage.”
The Penguins have also made it a good time of year for the light schedule by building a comfortable lead in the Eastern Conference, where they’re now eight points ahead of Boston, and the Metropolitan Division, where they have, somewhat quietly, separated themselves from Washington and Philadelphia by a 16-point margin.
“I wasn’t even aware of that,” Crosby said. “I think we obviously want to make sure we’re evaluating our game based on the way we’re playing. The results are important, but I think we’re pretty strict with the way we want to play.
“We probably got guilty [in Edmonton] of not being desperate enough. With Calgary, I thought we did a better job of making sure our desperation was there and we did a good job closing up.”
This week, the Penguins will try to continue building good habits that will benefit them not only in the near-term, but in their ultimate goal.
“Sometimes it’s just not your night; you don’t want to have those nights, but everybody has them,” Scuderi said. “I think it’s just a matter of bearing down and realizing the type of game we have to play if we want to be successful, not just in the regular season but in the postseason.
“When you’re thinking about the end goal, you want to build toward something bigger. You don’t want to lose games, but I’d rather lose a game playing the right way than take a chance playing the wrong way and have it go 50-50, because you know you’re going to win the majority of games playing that way.”