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Penguins rounding into championship form

Four-game winning streak helps two-time defending Cup winners erase memories of slow first half

by Mike Zeisberger @zeisberger / Columnist

PITTSBURGH -- With their faces pinned against the glass watching practice, a group of school kids begged the Pittsburgh Penguins players on the other side of the pane to flip them a puck.

The players tried.

The first attempt fell short. So did the next two or three.

"They're teasing us," one young lad in a Sidney Crosby jersey yelled in frustration.

Finally, success. The puck was scooped off the ice with a stick and flipped in the air, sailed over the glass panel and plopped down in the midst of the kids, who cheered. All the while, the Penguins players were smiling, pleased at how overjoyed their young fans were at getting their hands on a coveted chunk of round rubber.

This scene from Penguins practice the other day reflects the upbeat mood there is around the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, both inside and outside the dressing room.

Pittsburgh's first-half struggles had some fans in these parts claiming the Penguins, a team featuring Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, were teasing them, toying with their emotions and tugging at their heartstrings by underachieving. The slow start, which had the Penguins in seventh place in the Metropolitan Division with 43 points after 41 games, even brought with it concerns that they might miss the playoffs, a huge potential letdown for a city coming off back-to-back Stanley Cup parades.

Video: NYR@PIT: Crosby buries feed by Lundqvist

But thanks to a 5-1-0 record since Jan. 1, and a four-game win streak, the tease seems to be over. 

The start of the second half of the season has featured a Penguins team playing with the type of flair and dominance that helped bring NHL championships to the Steel City the past two seasons. Included in the impressive run have been victories against the New York Islanders and Boston Bruins, a five-day break, then back-to-back home wins against the Detroit Red Wings and New York Rangers this past weekend.

Refreshed? Revitalized? Stepping on the gas for the stretch run? Whatever the case, this team certainly is resembling the Penguins of old right now.

"Everyone's just playing better hockey. It's that simple," said forward Carl Hagelin, who had a goal and an assist in the 5-2 victory against the Rangers on Sunday. "Why that is I'm not sure, but guys seem to feel better about their game and have more swagger on the ice."

There is a strut in the Penguins' game right now, to be sure. Pittsburgh's 4-1 victory Saturday against the Red Wings, for example, was highlighted by a bang-bang Malkin-to-Kessel crease-front feed for a goal, followed by a Crosby goal in which he lifted a defenseman's stick at the last moment to gain control of the puck before firing it into the net.

"We've played a lot of hockey the past few years," Crosby said. "But the break helped.

"We're just having fun out there again."

Video: DET@PIT: Malkin whips home Hagelin's sweet dish

To understand the grind the Penguins have slogged through the past few years, consider Crosby's workload in that span.

From opening night of the 2014-15 season, Crosby, 30, has played 278 regular-season games, 53 in the playoffs, nine at the 2015 World Championships and six the World Cup of Hockey 2016. That's 346 games in 3 1/2 years, not including preseason games.

Crosby has never used his workload as an excuse. And the way he and the Penguins' other elite players have been performing of late, they have no need for one.

Crosby has 11 points in his past four games (three goals, eight assists); Malkin has eight points in his past four (five goals, three assists) and Kessel has 13 points in his past 10 (five goals, eight assists). Kessel reached the 700-point plateau Sunday and has scored at least 20 goals in 10 consecutive seasons.

"That's more the kind of identity that we have," Crosby said. "We're a fast team, and we're playing fast right now."

Meanwhile, with starting goalie Matt Murray home in Thunder Bay, Ontario dealing with a personal matter, backup Tristan Jarry stepped in to stop 55 of 58 shots faced in the two weekend victories.

The winning streak comes at a time when more eyeballs will be aimed at Crosby and his teammates. Now that the Pittsburgh Steelers' NFL season has ended, the Penguins' place in the local sports scene becomes even more prominent in the coming months.

Video: NYR@PIT: Jarry makes stick save on Grabner

Monday morning brought with it a frigid somber vibe to Pittsburgh, the bitter taste of the Steelers' 45-42 playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday fresh in the minds of a disappointed city. Still, a headline on the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review website attempted to take a glass-half-full view of the area's sports climate.

"Steelers done, but Penguins hot, spring training close," it read.

Since the calendar flipped to 2018, the Penguins (24-19-3, 51 points) are 5-1-0 and find themselves with the first wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference. In the process, they've looked more like the team that has hoisted the Cup the past two seasons.

"You see everyone's running on all cylinders," Jarry said. "You see Phil and Sid and [Malkin] and (Kris Letang ), they're all doing very well. It helps us when they're running like that."

The teasing, the locals hope, is over. Maybe now the real Pittsburgh Penguins are starting to emerge.

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