PITTSBURGH (AP) - Maybe this is the breakthrough the Pittsburgh Penguins have awaited since they began rebuilding five years ago.
As February approaches - usually the time they're deciding which veterans to dump at the trading deadline - the Penguins are an on-the-rise team rather than a fast-fading one. They've won five of six and, in winning their last three games, have outscored Toronto, Dallas and Phoenix by a combined 19-7. The Penguins haven't seen a stretch of scoring like that since Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr were in their lineup together.
Their mini-surge has jumped them into second place in the Atlantic Division, where they've finished last every season since 2001-02. They're also in contention for their first playoff appearance since Lemieux's comeback season in 2000-01.
"I really like the atmosphere," coach Michel Therrien said Monday. "The guys are focused, in great shape, and the confidence is there, too."
At 23-17-8, the Penguins have already won one more game than they did last season. They are 23 points ahead of where they were last season, which turned out to be the franchise's worst since a 16-win season in 1983-84.
The Penguins are looking to carry momentum into an important stretch of four games in six days that begins Tuesday night at home against Florida, and continues there Thursday against Montreal and Saturday against Washington.
"We realize what has made us successful the last couple of weeks, and that's our work ethic and playing complete games," second-year forward Sidney Crosby said. "We do make mistakes sometimes, but guys are there backing each other up when that happens. It's important we try to maintain that attitude."
The Penguins' turnaround hasn't resulted entirely from adding star rookie Evgeni Malkin (24 goals, 52 points) and 18-year-old Jordan Staal (16 goals) to a lineup that already included the 19-year-old Crosby - the league's leading scorer with 78 points in 45 games.
They've gotten much more consistent play in goal from Marc-Andre Fleury (21-12-6), who has four more wins than he did in his first two NHL seasons combined. Defenceman Ryan Whitney (35 points) has produced more offence than expected in only his second NHL season.
And, lately, Mark Recchi is playing like he's 19 rather than the 39 he will be on Thursday, with six goals and 10 points in three games.
Recchi, who starred for the Penguins' 1991 Stanley Cup champions, became the 38th player in NHL history with 500 career goals by scoring twice Friday in Dallas. He added No. 501 a night later in Phoenix.
Recchi has 48 points in 48 games, making him the rare player who can average a point a game so deep into his career. Maybe it's because he's been playing on a line with Crosby and Malkin.
Or, perhaps, he is witnessing a team that began the season as the second youngest overall in the league and is now beginning to mature.
"The biggest thing was the attitude right out of training camp," Recchi said. "I think it was terrific. I think the guys came in very unhappy about the way things went last year. We just kind of built from there."
What Therrien and Recchi want to see the next two-plus months is more consistency from what has been the NHL's streakiest team.
After losing seven of eight from Nov. 22-Dec. 7, they immediately won four in a row - then dropped their next five. Winning and losing streaks of three games each followed that.
"What we need to do when we lose a game is get right back on the winning side," Fleury said.
Once the Penguins start decreasing the length of their lapses, Recchi said, they will be a team ready to go into the playoffs.
"This is definitely going to get tough for the last 34 games," he said. "We're fighting for a playoff spot. And it's not like there are three or four teams out of it in our division, I mean there's 13 or 14 (Eastern Conference) teams fighting for a playoff spot. Every night is going to be a playoff game."