Momentum can be elusive to a young hockey team.
The Pittsburgh Penguins certainly generated a lot of it heading into the All-Star break. The team won three of four games and earned seven points in the process, culminating in an 8-2 romp over the Maple Leafs.
Now, they hope to keep it going.
“It was a must-win game for us,” said Penguins 20-year-old rookie Evgeni Malkin, who recorded the first five-point game of his NHL career against Toronto. “Before the break, it’s a great win. We got effort from the entire team and the entire team played great.”
The victory wasn’t just important for the Penguins’ spot in the Eastern Conference standings, but it gave the team an emotional boost heading into – and out of – the break.
“It was very important. We wanted to establish ourselves in a good position before the break and then come out of the break well-rested and hit the stretch drive and see what we can do,” Penguins winger Mark Recchi said. “We pulled ourselves into a good spot. We’re going to come out strong after the break.”
The Penguins (21-17-8) vaulted into second place in the Atlantic Division behind New Jersey (29-14-5). And, it moved Pittsburgh into the eighth – and final – playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 50 points.
“We’re in the hunt. Last year with the bad start, I don’t think the confidence was there. I think now the confidence has been there from the beginning,” Penguins forward Ryan Malone said. “If we even get down a couple goals, we know that if we keep playing the right way we have a chance to compete and win a lot of games. Compared to last year, it’s definitely a better season.
“We needed to take the time off to rest during the break because I think a lot of those games will turn into playoff games sooner than everyone thinks. It’s going to be a lot of fun. That’s when we need everyone to step up and take their game to another level.”
Indeed. Tampa Bay (54 points) and Carolina (56) were above the Penguins in the Eastern Conference playoff race at the break, but six teams were within four points.
“This year at this time, we’re in a battle, which is nice. We’re going to be coming back right into a battle,” Penguins winger Colby Armstrong said. “Our team has come a long way since last year. If we play well, any night I think we have a chance to win. It’s a different feeling and you can feel it in the locker room. Everyone here wants it and we’re right in the thick of things.
“That’s where we want to be. We’re right there. We’re on the heels of some teams and we’re tied with some teams,” he continued. “We’re pretty close and if you win a few or drop a few, you’re in or you’re out. Hopefully we can keep our streaks rolling and cut our dips to a minimum. The way we started this year, it’s kind of cliché, but we wanted to take it a game at a time. I think if we focus on that, we’ll be there by the end of the year battling and that’s where we want to be.”
The Penguins come out of the All-Star break with road games in Dallas and Phoenix before returning home to battle the Florida Panthers on Tuesday. While those aren’t division games, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury knows they are important points in the conference standings.
“Last year we might have been already out of the playoff race by now. It’s great that we’re still fighting to make it. The team has really improved since last year,” he said. “I think every game is important now.”
The Penguins, who have 36 games left on their schedule – 17 at home and 19 on the road – hope to avoid the streakiness they encountered in the first half of the season. They were able to rebound early in the schedule, but it could doom the team down the stretch of what should be a chaotic Eastern Conference playoff race.
“We don’t want to go on a long losing streak. Everything is so tight, you could fall too far back and not be able to come back up,” Fleury said. “So far, it’s been fun to play. That’s the thing – every game, it feels like we can win. If I give up a bad goal, I know the guys will come back and score. That way, it’s more fun.”
It’s been fun for the Penguins’ offense. Heading into the break, the team had outscored its last four opponents, 22-12, including an 18-7 advantage in three victories.
Individually, Malkin continued his success with a five-game points streak. He had 12 points (5+7) to boost his lead in the NHL rookie scoring race to 52 points (24+28) in 42 games. Los Angeles center Anze Kopitar is second with 42 points (13+29) in 50 games.
Malkin wasn’t the only high-flying Penguins player. Michel Ouellet owned a five-game points streak (2+7) as did defenseman Ryan Whitney (0+6). Recchi (4+3) and Sidney Crosby (3+4) both tallied points in their last four games at the break. Malone had points (2+1) in his last three games.
“I think we’re a better team than what our record shows,” Malone said. “I think it’s all still a learning process. You can’t complain, but you want to do better when you’re in the middle here. That was a big win going into the All-Star break and we’re definitely in the hunt.”