The Pittsburgh Penguins bench looks on during the opening faceoff against the Florida Panthers on March 10, 2009. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)
If you’re a Western Conference team and you witnessed the Columbus Blue Jackets’ shutdown performance in a 2-0 win over Boston Tuesday night, you’re a little more nervous than the night before.
After all, the Jackets will likely be making their first foray into the post-season this spring and will do so under the savvy tutelage of coach Ken Hitchcock.
If you’re an Eastern Conference team and you’ve seen the Pittsburgh Penguins lately, fear may be a survival instinct. Simply put, the Pens are hot right now – seven wins in a row hot. And for opponents, it’s that clicking-on-all-cylinders mojo that makes the Penguins a dangerous post-season foe.
Momentum is everything in the NHL, but timing is a close second. Don’t forget, at different points in the season the New York Rangers were an elite squad, the Dallas Stars were a dangerous playoff team and the Los Angeles Kings were challenging for a post-season berth.
For most of the year, the Penguins were kneecapped by key injuries (Sergei Gonchar and the now-departed Ryan Whitney the most crucial early on), but things really seem to be coming together now.
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who has won nine of his past 10 starts, is playing the Grant Fuhr role for Pittsburgh right now; his goals-against average from game to game is no better than it was earlier in the campaign, but he’s stopping pucks when it’s most crucial.
And with the offensive firepower the Pens have up front, sometimes when you stop a puck is more important than how many pucks you stop.
To wit; Tuesday night against Florida, the Panthers took a 3-1 lead going into the third period. But the Penguins mounted a furious comeback, outshooting the Cats 18-5 in the final frame and eventually pushing the game to a shootout. Fleury made his stops, while rival tender Tomas Vokoun was victimized by Kris Letang and especially by Evgeni Malkin on the shootout winner, as Geno left the Florida netminder belly down and spread-eagle in his crease.
Jordan Staal also proved his worth once again, terrorizing the Panthers with his reach and playing a solid all-round game. And of course, this is a team that also boasts Sidney Crosby, one of the best players in the game.
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t direct a good deal of the credit to new Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma, who has clearly re-energized a team that had grown apathetic and almost cynical under Michel Therrien.
Since losing his debut to the Islanders in a shootout, Bylsma has guided the Pens to nine wins in 10 games. The energy is once again flowing and the trap-style strategies of Therrien have been wiped clean off the dry-erase board. When Pittsburgh’s best players are on the ice, there’s the anticipation that something spectacular could happen at any second.
Think about that for a moment, while pretending to be an opposing defenseman or goalie.
While the Penguins may have underachieved earlier this year, the results are coming and I’m sure the folks in Pittsburgh don’t mind that their Pens decided to get the well-oiled machine out of the shop now, just as the big race is gearing up.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.
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