The Penguins opened their four-game swing through the western U.S. last Wednesday with a lackluster showing in Colorado, where they dropped a 3-1 decision to a team that’s out of playoff contention.

By the time they returned to Pittsburgh in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, the Penguins looked like a decidedly different team – one that could, and did, compete with the league’s best.

Friday saw Pittsburgh pour on the offense with five goals, including two from frequent Ducks nemesis Patric Hornqvist, in a 5-2 win over one of the league’s top teams in Anaheim. The next two contests were defensive battles, with goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury earning a 1-0, overtime shutout against the defending Stanley Cup champions in Los Angeles, then being edged by San Jose’s Antti Niemi’s 39-save performance in a hard-fought, 2-1 shootout loss.

“It’s fun for the goalie when it’s a 0-0 game sometimes,” Fleury said of the low-scoring contests. “It doesn’t always have to be 5-4 to be exciting.”

Pittsburgh’s strong defense out west wasn’t much of a surprise – they’re fourth in the league this season with a 2.36 goals-against average, and their penalty kill ranks fifth, with an 85.6 percent success rate. One revelation, however, was the continued growth of rookie defenseman Derrick Pouliot, who seemed a longshot to make the cut for the Penguins’ postseason roster as recently as a couple of weeks ago.

Pittsburgh’s management held that view as recently as last Monday’s trade deadline, when they sent significant size and physicality in blueliners Robert Bortuzzo and Simon Despres to St. Louis and Anaheim, respectively, in exchange for steadiness and experience in Ian Cole and Ben Lovejoy, returning for a second stint with the team.

“When we looked at our defense, despite the fact it’s played pretty well to this point, we were concerned about the experience and we were looking to upgrade it a little bit, more from a veteran presence,” said GM Jim Rutherford.

“If you go back to July and you look at what free agency did to this team, we lost [Brooks] Orpik and [Matt] Niskanen and those are two payers that we could not fit within our cap; they went for the big payday. So, the team lost a couple of good, experienced defensemen that are really hard to replace. In the meantime, we got [Christian] Ehrhoff, we started with some younger players that have done fairly well, but we just felt, to have a good run in the playoffs, we needed more experience.”

After Monday’s game at San Jose, however – a contest that highlighted Pouliot’s high-end offensive skill and improving defensive decisions – Johnston felt the player he coached when both were with the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks had made a statement.

“Yeah, he has [proven himself], for sure,” Johnston said. “He’s really controlled the ice with his puck movement; he’s made quicker decisions. Where he got caught before was just waiting that extra second with the puck and not moving it. He knows where he should move it and he’s quick enough, deceptive enough. But, at the NHL level, you just have to learn that.

“Through this whole trip I thought he’s been right at the top of our defense corps, and certainly shows a lot of poise in key situations. That’s going to help him in playoff hockey.”

After playing four games in six nights and earning five of eight possible points, the Penguins returned home to the reward of two consecutive days off. They’ll be thankful for the rest when they play three home games in four days, starting with hosting the Edmonton Oilers Thursday night and continuing with matinees Saturday against the Boston Bruins and Sunday against the Detroit Red Wings.

“It’s always tough coming off of a long road trip; you always look to that next game home to make sure you’re still playing the same way,” captain Sidney Crosby said.

The final three games of the trip provided a good example on which to build.

“[I liked] our consistency,” Crosby added. “Besides the Colorado game, we played some pretty solid periods and generated a lot of good chances. We’d still like to score more goals, but I think defensively we’ve been really solid and given ourselves a chance to win each game. I think good defense will lead to offensive chances.”