When you are a team with championship aspirations like the Pittsburgh Penguins, how you play in March, April and May carries more significance than what happens in October, November and December. If a team wants to make a deep run through the grind that is postseason play, they need all their big horses elevating their games at the right time.
One player who has proven more than capable of raising his level of play when the stakes are the highest is right winger Ruslan Fedotenko. The 31-year-old Ukrainian native’s resume backs this claim.
Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup championship last June was the second Cup of Fedotenko’s career. His first came with the Tampa Bay Lightning back in 2004, when he nearly matched his regular-season goal total (17) with 12 tallies in 22 postseason games, including both goals in Game 7 of the Final as Tampa Bay defeated Calgary 2-1.
Fedotenko was just as clutch last spring for the Penguins as he notched seven goals and 14 points in 24 games while teaming with Evgeni Malkin
and Maxime Talbot on a dominate second line.
Based upon his performance in the first four games following the Olympic break, Fedotenko appears intent on having another great stretch run. His recent run of success began when he picked up the game-winning goal and added an assist in the Penguins’ first game back last Tuesday, a 3-2 defeat of the Buffalo Sabres.
“I feel really good about where my game is,” Fedotenko said. “The last four games I have played really well. It makes me excited for the next 16 and through the playoffs. I am playing much better in every aspect. I think hopefully this is just my time of the year.”
If another late season scoring spree from Fedotenko feels like déjà vu, it should. One year ago he had one of the strongest finishes to the regular season of any Penguin, picking up 10 points (3G-7A) over the final seven games of the regular season as he and Malkin proved to be perfect complements to one another.
Fedotenko and Malkin have continued to skate together for much of this season. Following last Tuesday’s trade deadline they have been joined by newcomer Alexei Ponikarovsky, a long-time friend of Fedotenko who grew up in the same town of Kiev.
Ponikarovsky’s addition gives the line three big bodies who all play a relatively similar game, which has helped the unit form an instant chemistry.
“So far so good,” Fedotenko said of his line. “I feel like we have had two good games. I feel like we would definitely like to create more scoring, though. We have had good puck possession and created some chances. It is only a matter of time when we really click in and know where each one of us is located so we finish and score some goals.”
Not only are all three highly skilled when they have the puck on their stick, each is willing to put forth the necessary effort below the goal line and in the corners to win puck battles and establish a consistent cycling game, one of the staples of head coach Dan Bylsma’s system. Once they win those battles, all three play a straight-line game where they take the puck right to the net.
“You don’t necessarily need three guys who are doing the same job but we do have three guys who can take the puck right to the net,” Fedotenko said. “I think Geno has the one-on-one skill to beat guys but I think we all have the skill to drive to the net and score.”
While at least one member of the line has found the net in each of the four games since the break, Bylsma said he is most impressed how the trio has performed away from the puck and in the defensive zone when he addressed reporters following the Penguins’ optional practice on Monday at Southpointe.
Fedotenko said he agreed with his head coach’s analysis.
“I feel like we are playing well,” Fedotenko said. “It is just a matter of time until we just really get comfortable and know where each other is. When we do that we will be that much more productive.”
Considering how well Fedotenko and his linemates have played recently, it has to be almost scary for the rest of the league to imagine them being even better. But complacency isn’t a word you will find in the Penguins’ vocabulary, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Fedotenko wants even more from both he and the team.
“We put together four good games,” he said. “We need to sustain that so that we can build up some momentum heading into the playoffs.”
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