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Penguins coach Johnston expects improvement

by Wes Crosby /

PITTSBURGH -- Through the Pittsburgh Penguins' first 47 games last season, they sat atop the Metropolitan Division with a 16-point lead on the second-place Philadelphia Flyers. The Penguins had an eight-point advantage on the Boston Bruins for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, and they had gone 7-2-1 in their previous 10 games despite being ravaged by injuries through the first few months of the season.

Behind the bench was Dan Bylsma, the winningest coach in Penguins history.

Pittsburgh is again near the top of the division and conference standings through 47 games this season under new coach Mike Johnston, but heading into Wednesday Night Rivalry game against the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA, SN1) success hasn't come as easily as it seemed to last season.

The Penguins went 6-2-1 in October, when they had a plus-14 goal differential that was tied with the Minnesota Wild for the NHL lead. Their power play was converting at better than 40 percent, and it seemed their penalty kill had finally found its bearings.

Expectations rose considerably for a group being coached by someone in his first season behind an NHL bench.

But Pittsburgh then suffered the same fate it had a year ago, when one key player after another fell victim to injury.

Johnston has kept Pittsburgh at or near the top of the Metropolitan Division standings while inserting several call-ups from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League into the lineup. The Penguins have relied on defensemen such as Derrick Pouliot, Scott Harrington and Brian Dumoulin, as well as forwards Bryan Rust, Bobby Farnham and Jayson Megna, among others, to replace some of their more productive players.

"What happens is, when you add that many new players to your lineup, part of the time you're trying to bring them up to speed to what you're doing," Johnston said. "We talked about the similarities in [Wilkes-Barre/Scranton] as here. There are quite a few, but there are some differences too.

"So, bringing up, as we have with a number of [defensemen] and forwards we have, you're trying to work them in and just get them to know enough so that they can play well, but not overwhelm them with too much. Your building blocks get sort of halted for a little bit and now you start to progress from there, and that's what we're looking forward to heading into the second half here, after the All-Star break with the stretch run."

Much like last season, Pittsburgh has battled through injuries and illnesses to the likes of Kris Letang, Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz, Olli Maatta, Sidney Crosby and others.

Unlike last season, the injuries eventually caught up to the Penguins, who were three points behind the New York Islanders at the All-Star break. The Penguins and Islanders each won Tuesday in their first game after the break, keeping Pittsburgh three points behind.

Pittsburgh heads into its game against the Capitals after a 5-3 home victory against the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday. The win ended a four-game losing streak, matching the Penguins' longest skid this season. They did not lose more than three consecutive games last season.

In their final game before the break, Pittsburgh lost 3-2 in a shootout to the Chicago Blackhawks. But despite being without three of their top-five scorers, Letang, Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist, and with Crosby battling a lower-body injury, the Penguins displayed an impressive effort that could give the locker room a boost entering the final few months of the season.

"I think [the All-Star break] was only our second four-day break all year. I don't think we have any more than [a two-day break] coming up for the rest of the season," Kunitz said. "So it was well-needed. Hopefully, the guys got a fresh breath of air. We haven't been playing our best hockey, but I think we've found a way for 60 minutes to hang in with a Blackhawks team with [us a] few guys short, and if we can build off games like that, hopefully we'll make a push here late in the season to get that confidence going."

Johnston expected this. During his introductory press conference on June 25, the new coach said he was going to use the regular season as a vessel to prepare the Penguins for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He said he wanted to win regular-season games, but doing so wasn't as important as making sure his players were playing exactly how he wanted them to.

"You want your team to get better every game, and then you want to get into the playoffs playing your best hockey," said defenseman Simon Despres, who is having his most productive NHL season. "That's how it was with Dan. That's how it is with Mike. That's how it is with every coach. Obviously, you want the two points because you want to make the playoffs, so it depends on the situation with the team.

"If you're battling for a playoff spot, maybe you more want the points."

That narrative has held true. Johnston has been willing to juggle lines even when each of Pittsburgh's four lines is playing well, just to test how the forwards would perform alongside different linemates. The same can be said with the defensive pairings, with the exception of Rob Scuderi and Despres, who have skated with each other for the bulk of the season.

More recently, Johnston has been forced to experiment because of injuries, but he had been making changes to the lineup well before the Penguins started losing bodies around the middle of November.

Despite the injuries and Johnston's propensity to make frequent changes, the Penguins are within three points of the Islanders (65 points) and Detroit Red Wings (65) for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

Pittsburgh's offense has not been quite as potent as last season's version, averaging 3.00 non-shootout goals, down from 3.11 last season. The defense has also been a little more leaky, allowing four more non-shootout goals (116) through 47 games than it did last season.

Those numbers don't matter to Johnston. He has stated several times this season he is not concerned about points, but rather how the Penguins are performing. Pittsburgh has been struggling lately, not just in earning points, but also in impressing its coach.

As injured players return to the lineup, Johnston feels the Penguins will finally reach their potential. But he acknowledges that the road there hasn't been a smooth one.

"We haven't got our game totally down," Johnston said. "We talked about it in the month of December, it was a little bit of patchwork, trying to make sure that we held on to our game and add some players in, and as we start to get some players back, I expect we'll get back to the type of game that we can play, for sure."

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