A division title was unthinkable for the Pittsburgh Penguins a month ago. Now, it is a very realistic goal for the NHL's hottest team.
The Penguins look to extend their longest point streak in more than a decade to 14 games on Wednesday when they host the Chicago Blackhawks.
Pittsburgh (29-17-9) was on the outside of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference a few weeks ago, but an impressive 11-0-2 run has moved it into a tie with Ottawa for fourth place and within seven points of Atlantic Division-leading New Jersey.
Although the Devils don't appear ready to relinquish their lead, having won 12 of 17, they will face the Penguins four times in the next month, including Saturday's matchup at New Jersey.
Jordan Staal continued his outstanding rookie season Saturday with his first career hat trick, scoring his final goal at 3:54 of overtime in a 6-5 victory at Toronto.
Staal, 18, has goals in five straight games and 23 this season, putting him four behind teammate Evgeni Malkin for the league lead among first-year players.
"It seems like everything is working for me," Staal said. "Hopefully, I'll keep it going and get this team in the playoffs."
Teammate Mark Recchi is most impressed with Staal's ability to switch positions from his natural center to right wing.
"He's amazing. He's gone beyond all expectations," Recchi said. "He's had to learn how to play a new position, and he's doing it as an 18-year-old in the NHL, yet he's been unbelievable."
Malkin had a goal and three assists Saturday for the Penguins, who have points in 13 consecutive games for the first time since earning 12 wins and two ties from Dec. 19, 1996-Jan. 21, 1997.
The Penguins have outscored opponents 27-9 during a six-game home win streak, their longest since a nine-game run from Jan. 28-Feb. 22, 1999. They have points in nine in a row (8-0-1) at Mellon Arena.
The Penguins have been vastly improved in virtually every category, resulting in a 32-point increase at this point from last season. They are allowing 3.1 goals per game after yielding 4.0 at this point in 2005-06 and the offense also has been better, averaging 3.5 goals compared to 2.7 at this point last season.
NHL scoring leader Sidney Crosby has gone seven straight games without a goal, matching a career high, but does have nine assists in that span.
This is the final stop on what has been a successful road trip for the Blackhawks (22-27-7), winners of four of six on the seven-game trek and five of seven overall.
Red-hot Martin Havlat had a goal and two assists, and Chicago scored three times in the first period before holding on for a 5-4 victory Sunday at Columbus.
"It's a young team," coach Denis Savard said. "We made a few mistakes. The good thing about this is we can fix it."
Havlat has seven goals and three assists during a six-game goal streak, and leads the team with 44 points despite missing 22 games with injuries.
"I feel I'm playing the best hockey I've ever played, for sure," Havlat said. "That's my goal every year - to be better than the season before."
The Penguins have four wins and two ties in their last six home games against the Blackhawks since a 5-2 loss on Feb. 22, 1997. Chicago won 4-1 at home in the most recent meeting on Jan. 13, 2006.