Head coach Dan Bylsma said his team wanted to make a statement in their Sunday game against Boston.
And boy, did they ever.
The Penguins rolled over the defending Stanley Cup champions by a score of 5-2 to extend their winning streak to a season-high nine games. Only the Bruins, who had a 10-game winning streak from Nov. 1-23, have won more consecutive games this season.
“We’re just being consistent and having fun doing it,” forward James Neal
said. “It’s a great attitude around the rink every day. When you are winning it’s a good feeling and you’re having a lot of fun. We know what type of team we have in here and we know what we can do. As long as we come out and play hard each day things are going to happen for us.”
The Penguins are also starting to give new meaning to the term “home-ice advantage,” as the win completed a perfect 4-0 homestand. It’s the first time Pittsburgh has gone on perfect home stretch of four games or more since going 5-0 Feb. 2-11, 1999 at Mellon Arena.
Pittsburgh has won seven straight home games and is now 13-1 in its last 14 home games dating back to Jan. 17.
“It’s always nice when you’re home and you’ve got your fans behind you,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury
said. “We’ve been pretty good here. It just seems like every night we’re here, it doesn’t matter what the score is. We always believe that with the fans behind us, we can always make it back in the games and win them.”
The Penguins are now just two points behind the New York Rangers for first place in the Eastern Conference standings (the Blueshirts host the New York Islanders later tonight at Madison Square Garden).
Just recently, the Rangers seemed poised to run away with the conference title as they had built their lead over the second-place club to as high as 10 points. But thanks to their impressive run, the Penguins now have a truly legitimate shot to overtake their division rival – who is up next on the schedule, a Thursday night tilt at Madison Square Garden.
“We’ve inched closer. We’ve gone on a streak where we’ve won nine,” Bylsma said. “But we expect the Rangers to win hockey games, too. We’re going to have to not only tie them, but surpass them with the way the wins are to catch them and get into the first spot.”
With just 14 regular-season games left before the playoffs begin, the Penguins couldn’t have picked a better time to start rolling.
Though they don’t want to get ahead of themselves – a lot can happen in these next four weeks – the team has learned from past experience that playing consistently this late in the season bodes well for the postseason.
“We always keep saying, ‘go one game at a time’ because we have so many tough games here,” defenseman Brooks Orpik
said. “There is no easy game, but I think the biggest thing we’ve learned from the last couple of years is if you struggle down a stretch it kind of has to carry over into the playoffs. If you can get on a roll during the last 20-game segment it usually has a really big carryover into how you play in the first round of the playoffs. That’s something we’ve talked about.”
Ask any of the Penguins, and they all agree that playing a complete team game has been key to their success. The burden hasn’t fallen squarely on certain players’ shoulders – guys are stepping up when it’s needed.
“I think we are getting contributions from everybody,” Orpik explained. “You see other teams matching up against (Evgeni Malkin
)’s line, and some nights when they don’t come up with any goals we have other guys stepping up and contributing. That’s what you need. Those guys can’t carry the load every night.”
And of course, they’ve got that Marc-Andre Fleury
guy between the pipes.
“Obviously the goaltending has been huge for us,” Orpik said. “I think when your goalie plays that well it gives everybody in front of him the confidence to make plays. If you make a mistake he’s probably going to bail you out. On the opposite side if your goalie isn’t playing well you kind of play a little tentatively and that’s usually when you come up on the losing side. I think it all starts with (Fleury). When he plays confidently, it gives us confidence too.”
It’s going to be a tall task to extend the streak to 10 games on Thursday against the Rangers. But the Penguins know just how significant that matchup is, and they’re ready.
“We have that big board out there with standings, so everybody’s aware of that,” Orpik said.