Eight months after they came within two wins of drinking from Lord Stanley’s Cup, the Pittsburgh Penguins are struggling to get into the playoff picture. After Wednesday’s 2-1 shootout win over one of the league’s best teams, however, things are looking a little brighter.
That victory over the San Jose Sharks, who currently lead the Western Conference with the second-best points total in the NHL, could go down as an important milestone in Pittsburgh’s season. The Penguins started their four-game homestand last week with wins over teams behind them in the standings – a skin-of-their-teeth comeback over Tampa and a solid defeat of Columbus – but knew they also needed to fare well against contenders like Detroit and San Jose. The mission didn’t start the way they wanted, with a 3-0 loss in a Stanley Cup Final rematch with the Red Wings on Sunday, but the Penguins felt they had played a solid game and could build on the effort. On Wednesday, it paid off.
“It was really important to prove to ourselves that we can win some games against the best teams in the league,” said 21-year-old defenseman Kris Letang, who’s been looking like the offensive star he’s projected to be since his return from the Young Stars Game last month. “We played a great game against Detroit but the result was not there. Tonight we played another great game, and the result was there.”
The Penguins came out with intensity and discipline, knowing they would need a complete, 60-minute effort to contend with a team that had beaten the league-best Boston Bruins by three goals the night before. Both teams fired plenty of shots at the net, but the game remained scoreless until 18:26 of the second, when Pittsburgh native Bill Thomas, who’s found a niche as a fourth-line grinder, penalty killer and faceoff man since being recalled from the minors last month, got a lucky bounce to score his first goal as a member of his hometown team.
San Jose’s Ryan Clowe tied it midway through the third, but the Penguins maintained their focus through the remainder of the period, overtime and shootout, where captain Sidney Crosby scored the lone goal.
“Guys really battled hard,” said head coach Michel Therrien. “Even when they scored that goal to tie the game, we never quit, and I thought we even upgraded our intensity after that goal. It was a great game from everyone, a good team effort, that’s what I liked about it.”
The Penguins also had to like the effort from goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who has struggled with consistency since returning from injury in mid-December. Fleury turned aside 36 San Jose shots for the win, including all three shootout attempts.
“One of the best teams in the league, and we gave them a good challenge all game long,” Fleury said. “It was a good game by everybody.”
Now the Penguins face the even greater challenge of stringing together enough wins to propel themselves into the postseason, no small feat for a team that’s won consecutive games only twice since mid-November. Pittsburgh currently sits at 10th place in the Eastern Conference, three points out of the eighth and final playoff spot.
“We’re trying to get a little consistency going, get a little momentum with some wins and climb in the standings,” Fleury said. “We’ve got to keep building.”
Pittsburgh’s next contest, Saturday night at Toronto, won’t carry the emotion of a statement game against one of the league’s elite teams; the Maple Leafs are nine points behind the Penguins and a long shot to play past April. If the Penguins hope to avoid a similar early vacation, however, they’ll need to bring the same work ethic they did against Detroit and San Jose.
“When you’re playing teams like that, everyone probably raises their level a bit,” said Crosby. “It’s a measuring stick for us, and it probably brings out the best in a lot of guys. But we’ve got to find a way to maintain that level no matter who we play against, and make sure we rise to that every time we step on the ice. It’s playoff time for us, and we’ve got to play with that mentality every game.”
Pittsburgh does expect to get one major lift on Saturday – Sergei Gonchar, a four-time All-Star and second-leading scorer among NHL defensemen the past two seasons, has been medically cleared to return for the first time since his shoulder was dislocated in the preseason. The Penguins’ power play has especially suffered in the absence of its quarterback, dropping from fourth-best in the league last season to 23rd this year.