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Penguins embark on second half with renewed swagger

Confidence on rise after winning 10 of 12

by Wes Crosby / Correspondent

CRANBERRY, Pa. -- It's now easier for Sidney Crosby to see the positives of the Pittsburgh Penguins' struggles earlier this season. An eight-game winning streak will do that.

"Teams are going to be faced with adversity at different points," Crosby said. "I think, in the cases when you go through it a little bit earlier, it can be something that brings you together. It pushes you and forces you to improve. I think that's the case with us."

The future now has Crosby's attention, starting with the Penguins' next game against the Florida Panthers at PPG Paints Arena on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; ATTSN-PT, FS-F, NHL.TV). A five-game Western Conference road trip follows Jan. 11-19.

Video: PIT@MIN: Crosby scores PPG off Kessel's terrific feed

"There's still a lot of hockey," he said. "It's a long season and we've made some good strides here. We have to continue to build on it."

The Penguins (23-13-6) had their season-high eight-game winning streak end with a 5-3 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday. Yet, they have come a long way since losing nine of 10 (1-7-2) from Oct. 30-Nov. 19 and falling to 7-8-4 through their first 19 games.

They are two points behind the first-place Washington Capitals in the Metropolitan Division. They are also one of seven Eastern Conference teams within five points of each other, competing for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs and positioning in their respective divisions.

But the standings don't concern Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. At least not yet. The quality of Pittsburgh's play is seen as more important than the quantity of points it earns.

"It's hard to create the separation that you would like," Sullivan said. "But I do think it makes us a better team because every night is so important. ... We believe as long as we control what we can in the short term, and we stay in the moment and don't get ahead of ourselves, the results will come."

Positive results have come recently, and special teams have played a big part. Pittsburgh's power play converted nine of 13 chances in the five games entering Sunday, and the Penguins have the fifth-ranked penalty kill in the NHL (83.6 percent).

"I think you create your own luck. That's in my book," defenseman Kris Letang said. "Obviously, we have tons of skilled guys set up [on the power play]. We get set up for great plays."

Video: PIT@CAR: Letang, Crosby combine to open the scoring

Letang has played a big role in Pittsburgh's turnaround with 37 points (10 goals, 27 points) in his first 40 games this season. He had 51 points (nine goals, 42 assists) in a 2017-18 season full of defensive lapses after returning from undergoing neck surgery the week of April 13, 2017.

Several other players are worthy of mention. Crosby had 13 points (three goals, 10 assists) in a six-game point streak that ended Sunday; Jake Guentzel has 10 points (five goals, five assists) in his past nine games; Phil Kessel has 11 points (three goals, eight assists) in his past seven; and Bryan Rust scored eight goals in six games from Dec. 12-20.

But the biggest difference between November and January is the health and strong play of goalie Matt Murray.

Since returning from a lower-body injury, Murray has won each of his seven starts with two shutouts, a 1.27 goals-against average and .952 save percentage. Before that, Murray allowed at least four goals in each of his six previous starts (0-4-1) and surrendered three goals on 10 shots before being pulled after the first period against the Ottawa Senators on Nov. 17.

Murray said he is aware of his improved performance but chose not to specify what has changed.

Sullivan went into more detail.

"When you can stack a few games together like he has, and played as well has he has, it has to build his confidence," Sullivan said. "With that comes a whole different demeanor. I think, right now, he exudes so much confidence. He always has a calm demeanor in goal, and that's the quiet confidence [he has] when he's at his best."

Video: Murray earns Friday's Pepsi Zero Sugar Shutout

Murray isn't the only player with increased confidence, Sullivan said. At several points following losses in October and November, he spoke of a swagger the Penguins have when they're playing their best.

That swagger is back, Sullivan said. It just needs to stay.

"The expectations around our team are extremely high, and for good reason," Sullivan said. "We believe we have a pretty good group here."

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