|Sergei Gonchar and the Penguins look to continue their success on the road. Pittsburgh is just four wins away from tying a team record for road wins in a season. Credit - Getty Images
No, racking up victories is not as easy as the Penguins 4-0 record since the Olympic break would suggest. In fact, the team has had to come from behind at some point in three of the contests, including two-goal deficits against the New York Rangers and Buffalo.
After taking care of business coming out of the break with three of those four games being played at Mellon Arena, the schedule now gets much tougher for the Penguins, who play their next five games on the road and seven of eight outside the Pittsburgh city limits. The stretch begins with three games in four nights at Carolina on Thursday, New Jersey on Friday and down to Tampa Bay on Sunday.
The Penguins will return home to Pittsburgh following the game on Sunday and then fly back to New Jersey next Tuesday for back-to-back games with the Devils and Boston Bruins.
“It’s always tough when you play three (games) in four (nights), especially when they are on the road and you go south, north and back south,” Alex Goligoski said. “It is nice the back-to-back games are (Thursday) and Friday.
“We are going to have some good games. Carolina has been playing really well lately. Obviously we are battling Jersey for first place right now. Tampa has a lot of offense on their team right now. It will be three good games.”
Carolina presents the first challenge for the Penguins. On the periphery this contest looks like a classic mismatch decidedly in the Penguins favor, but closer examination reveals that’s not the case.
While the Hurricanes might rank 13th in the Eastern Conference with 62 points, they are in the midst of an 8-2-1 stretch which has moved them within eight points of the final playoff berth. This has come despite trading away key veteran contributors such as Matt Cullen, Aaron Ward and Joe Corvo at the trading deadline.
“It’s an interesting storyline to watch this team continue to win and play hard,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “Even when things weren’t going well earlier this year, they were a hardworking team and a fast team. A few players have been taken out of their lineup and traded away, but they were still able to step in with guys and still play that way. If you think that it’s going to be an easy game, I think you’re dead wrong.”
“They have traded away a lot of guys but they are still a good team,” former Hurricane Craig Adams
added. “They have some really good players there still. They also have a bunch of players who are hungry for jobs for next year. It’s going to be a real challenge.”
Led by a strong offensive nucleus built around centers Eric Staal and Brandon Sutter, superb playmaker Ray Whitney and goal scorers Jussi Jokinen and Tuomo Ruutu, the Canes are back to playing near the level they were at this time last season, when they were one of the league’s top teams going down the stretch.
Despite playing the past 10 games without goaltender Cam Ward, who is out with a back problem, the Hurricanes are getting excellent play between the pipes. His backups, Manny Legace and Justin Peters, have stopped over 93 percent of the shots they’ve seen the past 10 games. Add in the fact that Carolina still plays an up-tempo, aggressive game, and the Penguins will have their hands full at RBC Center.
“You always know what you are going to get with them,” Goligoski said. “They are a hard working team. They had a ton of injuries at the beginning with Ward and Staal out for a while. They have been playing really well lately.”
Less than 24 hours after visiting Carolina, Pittsburgh heads back north to take on the Devils. The Penguins enter Thursday with a three-point lead on the Devils in the race for the Atlantic Division crown, but New Jersey has won all four contests thus far.
Perhaps no Penguin is looking forward to Friday night more than goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury
, who says feels he owes New Jersey something after the way the first four games went for him.
“I had a couple rough ones against them earlier in the year so I am looking forward to playing them and changing that up,” Fleury said. “We are playing good hockey right now and we have to stay higher in the standings than them so this is a big game.”
And with a big game on the line, who better to have in the crease than Fleury, the defending Stanley Cup champion goaltender. Fleury is 3-0 against the Devils in March/April the past two seasons, and 4-2-2 all-time in those months.
Penguins forwards Sidney Crosby
and Evgeni Malkin
are also looking forward to playing New Jersey twice within a six-day span.
“We can look at it as a great opportunity,” Crosby said. “It’s an opportunity to get points against a team that we’re battling with. At the same team, we can get a couple of wins back after they stole a few in our building. It’s a great opportunity for us to bounce back.”
|The Penguins will have to deal with containing Lightning forward Steven Stamkos on Sunday. Stamkos ranks third in the NHL with 41 goals. Credit - Getty Images |
“Every game against New Jersey is a tough game,” Malkin said. “They are a defensive team with a great goalie. We will be ready because it will be like a playoff game.”
Yes, it will be a playoff atmosphere at the Prudential Center, but Adams says the Penguins have to make sure not to put too much stock into the game.
“The winner of that game is not the Stanley Cup champions so it’s not the be-all and end-all,” Adams said. “They are a really good team and we haven’t been able to solve them. We would like to solve them on Friday but it’s going to be a really good challenge.”
Finally, the Penguins head back down south on Sunday for a 5 p.m. matchup with Tampa Bay, which currently sits eighth in the conference with 65 points, five out of the final playoff berth.
Although the Lightning defeated the Penguins 3-1 back on Jan. 2, Pittsburgh has had great success at the St. Pete Times Forum the past two seasons, going a combined 4-0 there in ’07-08 and ’08-09.
Continuing that success will hinge upon how well the Penguins can control Tampa Bay stars Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos, who rank fifth and sixth respectively in the NHL scoring race as of Thursday.
In just his second season, Stamkos has emerged as one of the top forwards in the game, ranking third behind Crosby and Alex Ovechkin with 41 goals.
“He is a young guy who has a lot of skills,” Fleury said. “Even last year we felt we had to look at for him.”
“He is one of those guys we are really going to have to keep an eye on,” Goligoski said. “He has that spot on the power play where he likes to rip shots from similar to where Ovechkin is on Washington’s power play. We have to keep an eye on him.”