The Pens are rolling right now. They’ve won four straight games and seven of their last eight contests. Pittsburgh has 14 points on the year, just two behind Metro Division leaders Washington and the New York Rangers.
They’ve been so successful lately that it’s hard to believe that they opened the season by losing their first three games.
So what’s changed from those first three contests?
“The details in our game have been way better the last eight games,” said forward Patric Hornqvist, who has goals in each of the team’s past two games.
But there are a few reasons why Pittsburgh has been able to overcome that 0-3 hole to start the year.
*The Pens forward combinations are finally starting to come together. After some mixing and matching, the coaching staff has found a formula that works.
“We found good lines. Coach changed the lines,” said center Evgeni Malkin, who leads the team in scoring with 10 points. “We have more chemistry with the different lines.”
This is how the Pens looked at the beginning of the season… Kunitz-Crosby-Kessel Plotnikov-Malkin-Hornqvist Bennett-Bonino-Perron Farnham-Cullen-Sprong
The return of injured forwards has also benefited the club. Their depth at forward was one of the team’s strengths entering the season, but injuries to Beau Bennett (undisclosed), Pascal Dupuis (lower-body) and Eric Fehr (elbow) meant the full unit wasn’t available.
With Fehr’s return last night in Toronto – a game in which he posted a shorthanded goal and two points – the Pens have their full compliment of forwards for the first time this year.
This was how the Pens looked last night… Dupuis-Crosby-Hornqvist Perron-Malkin-Kessel Kunitz-Bonino-Bennett Plotnikov-Cullen-Fehr
Already you can see the effect of having healthy bodies learning to play with each other.
*Now that the players are actually getting a chance to play together, they are building much needed chemistry.
“We had quite a few new players in the group. Every line was changed and every defense pair was different from the way we ended the season last year,” head coach Mike Johnston said. “I think the chemistry of the group is starting to come right now … guys know their roles and know how they need to contribute. Our depth is really good in a lot of areas.”
And the Pens were able to build that chemistry and handle the early-season adversity thanks in large part to one man: Marc-Andre Fleury.
*Fleury has been the team’s best player through the opening month of the season.
“He’s been so good. Definitely our MVP game in and game out,” defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. “We wouldn’t be where we are without him.”
Fleury is putting up career numbers. While his 6-4 record isn’t indicative of his play, Fleury has a 1.71 goals-against average and .942 save percentage with two shutouts. More importantly, he’s kept the Pens in every game and has given them time to find their chemistry.
“He has allowed the guys in front of him to grow and gel and start playing together more,” Lovejoy said. “We still have a long way to go. Hopefully we can begin to play even better in front of Marc.”
Despite the team’s winning stretch, they know that there are plenty of ways for the team to improve.
The offense still hasn’t exploded for the type of the production expected from the star-filled lineup, but they have posted seven goals in the past two games. The power play ranks 26th in the NHL, but has connected on two of the last three chances.
While they have a long way to go, there are signs of improvements in those areas.
“We feel good about ourselves but we have a higher gear so we’ll keep going here,” Hornqvist said.
And while Fleury is the biggest catalyst of the team’s wins, he isn’t the only reason.
Whether it’s Evgeni Malkin scoring an overtime power-play game-winner, Lovejoy shutting down Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, the fourth line chipping in two goals from Eric Fehr and Matt Cullen, the penalty kill successfully thwarting 23 of the last 24 chances against, or gutting out physical battles against tough teams on the road, each victory has featured different players stepping up to contribute.
The Pens have found a way to win. And with each win comes more confidence.
“When you win you feel much better. You have more confidence,” Malkin said. “The last three games we’ve played solid. All four lines worked hard. ‘Flower’ of course is playing unbelievable right now. I think we are playing better with every game right now.”