The Pittsburgh Penguins
are proof of just how much can change in the NHL over a span of 10 days.
The last time they played the Washington Capitals
, the Penguins were victimized only once, but it was enough for a 1-0 loss that dropped them out of the top eight in the Eastern Conference this late in the season for the first time since Dan Bylsma
took over as coach.
It was Pittsburgh's sixth straight loss.
"We did a lot of good things, but still it's not enough to get the win," Penguins forward James Neal
said after that loss at Verizon Center on Jan. 11. "We just need to get a win, that's bottom line.”
Well, when the Penguins and Capitals meet Sunday in Pittsburgh for the NHL on NBC Game of the Week (12:30 p.m. ET), the home team will put a five-game winning streak on the line.
Pittsburgh has jumped back into the race and currently sits in sixth place in the Eastern Conference with 56 points. Washington, which leapt into the top eight with that 1-0 win against the Penguins on Jan. 11, are now leading the Southeast Division and third in the Eastern Conference despite their second 3-0 loss in the last three games Friday night.
"I think we played a really good game in Washington. We liked the way we played. We talked about how it was better to play that way and react that way with our attitude. That's what we have to have. It's been with a bit of an attitude and a bit of an edge to our game. That's always been a part of how we need to play." -- Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma
The Penguins credit their effort in that 1-0 loss to the Capitals for helping them get back on track.
"When you're losing hockey games, there's cracks and holes and people try to point them out," Bylsma said. "I think we played a really good game in Washington. We liked the way we played. We talked about how it was better to play that way and react that way with our attitude. That's what we have to have. It's been with a bit of an attitude and a bit of an edge to our game. That's always been a part of how we need to play."
The Penguins haven't lost since that close defeat at Verizon Center largely because Evgeni Malkin
has been red hot.
Malkin scored his eighth goal of the winning streak in Pittsburgh's 5-4 shootout win Friday against Montreal. His goal came in the final five minutes of regulation and it gave the Penguins a chance to earn at least a point. He then scored the lone goal in the shootout to get his team the second point.
"We don't get tired of him on the ice at all. He's been playing unbelievable," Penguins defenseman Kris Letang
said following the win. "Even if it wasn't a pretty game, we just found a way to win and Geno came up pretty big."
The Penguins also didn't have Letang the last time they played Washington. He was busy skating hard at home with strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar, attempting to overcome the final bit of symptoms from a concussion that he suffered Nov. 29.
Letang returned Thursday at Madison Square Garden after missing 21 games. Despite claims from Bylsma that he would ease the star defenseman back into the mix, Letang played more than 24 minutes and picked up an assist. He played more than 28 minutes Friday against Montreal and collected a goal along with an assist.
"He is so very important and I truly believe if he didn't get hurt, he would be among the top candidates for the Norris Trophy," NBC Sports analyst Jeremy Roenick
told NHL.com. "He could still get there, but he missed a lot of time. He's just so dynamic and such a big part of that hockey club, both defensively and offensively. The team got a big boost with him coming back against the Rangers."
18-year-olds making an impact
Rick Sadowski - NHL.com Correspondent
The 2011 Entry Draft was considered lacking in elite talent by some prognosticators, but five guys from that class who haven't reached their 19th birthday have collected points this season. READ MORE ›
Washington got a big boost after that win against the Penguins. The victory came on the heels of two of the Caps worst losses of the season, back-to-back 5-2 drubbings at San Jose and Los Angeles, but it started them off on a three-game winning streak that finally pushed them past the Florida Panthers
into first place in the Southeast Division.
However, the Capitals have lost two of their last three games, both by identical 3-0 scores to non-playoff contenders in the New York Islanders
and Carolina Hurricanes
. They still lead the Southeast Division by virtue of having five more non-shootout wins than the Panthers, but that was little comfort after the loss Friday in Raleigh, N.C. that was a direct result of poor special teams play.
Washington went 0-for-3 on the power play and yielded a shorthanded goal that came directly off a turnover by John Carlson
. The Capitals' penalty kill was successful on just one of three opportunities.
"We got outworked," said Capitals forward Troy Brouwer
, who also called his team lazy. "We tried to make cute, tough plays through the seams. I was a culprit of that once or twice as well. We're not pointing fingers at anybody, but we've just got to collectively work harder."
Motivation shouldn't be a problem Sunday. If it is – for an afternoon national TV game against their biggest rivals – the Capitals will know their problems run way deeper than just a rough night on special teams.
Then again, will motivation be enough to bring an end to Pittsburgh's season-changing winning streak?
"I don't think there's one thing you can put your finger on that made miracles," said Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury
, who will likely make his 21st consecutive start Sunday at Consol Energy Center. "It's just we're working hard. Even though we were losing, we we're still having some decent games. We just tried to stay positive throughout and it's been going well now."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl