"This is our stretch drive. We have to find something special. People need to step up and be held accountable. We have to get a good feeling going. I'm hopeful (Wednesday) night's win is something that will get us going here."
-- Ray Shero
The sun came up Thursday morning, and for the first time in a long time Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Ray Shero felt like he woke up on the right side of the bed.
His counterpart in Detroit, Ken Holland, has been doing that for most of the season, but even the three-time Stanley Cup-winning GM has his off days.
Than again, Shero would probably hang up the phone in utter disgust if Holland was on the other end complaining about how the Red Wings have played this season.
"The standard, obviously, has been high here," Holland told NHL.com.
The Wings, still second in the Western Conference, have struggled to meet the standard this season due to a focus problem stemming from their lingering Stanley Cup hangover. The Penguins haven't even come close to the standard they set for themselves last season when they made it all the way to Game 6 of the Cup Final against the Wings.
Therein lies the drama of Sunday's NHL on NBC game at Mellon Arena (12:30 p.m. ET) between last year's champs and runners-up. A win can potentially set either team soaring into the stretch run. A loss by the Penguins will be just another in what has so far been a disappointing season.
"This is our stretch drive," Shero told NHL.com. "We have to find something special. People need to step up and be held accountable. We have to get a good feeling going. I'm hopeful (Wednesday) night's win is something that will get us going here."
The Penguins have won consecutive games only once since a six-game winning streak back in November, but they have a chance to do it again Friday night against Columbus because of their remarkable come-from-behind win Wednesday over Tampa Bay.
After playing emotionless hockey for the first 40 minutes, they jumped on Evgeni Malkin's back and came all the way back from a 3-0 deficit to earn a 4-3 win in overtime. Even Holland suggested that is the kind of win that can turn around an entire season.
"When you play the game you have to have emotion and the first two periods we had no emotion at all," Shero said. "In the third period, when Malkin scored, it started coming and good things started to happen."
Still, it was only one win, only two of the many points the Penguins must grab if they want to find themselves on safe ground come the end of March. They were 10th in the Eastern Conference as of Thursday morning, but only one point shy of eighth.
The Penguins' problem has been twofold this season. Their goals against has risen from 2.58 per game last season to 3.04 this season, and their power play has faltered, dropping from a 20.4-percent success rate last season to 16.4 percent this season.
At least part of the solution is on his way back. Sergei Gonchar, who has missed the entire season to date with a shoulder injury, is skating and hoping for a pre-trade deadline return, Shero said.
"He's our best defenseman," the GM added. "He's the guy that makes our power play go. He's the quarterback. He directs things. The thing with ‘Gonch’ is he takes charge. His addition is pretty much invaluable."
Getting Gonchar back will be like adding an All-Star at the deadline for nothing. It also means Shero won't be looking to make a splash the way he did last season when he traded for Marian Hossa, dealing Atlanta Colby Armstrong, Eric Christensen, prospect Angelo Esposito and a first round draft pick.
"I said this when we did the deal last year, you cannot do this every year," Shero said. "That is not what I'm looking to do. To give up those assets, you can't do that every year."
Holland suggested he's not against making a trade at or before the deadline if it will make the Wings a better contender.
"I don't know how busy we're going to be, but I'm certainly going to work the phones," he said. "We don't have space to be bringing in big money guys, but if some people don't play as well as we think and we have to make moves we'll make some moves.
"Than again, is one guy going to get 20 guys focused and sharp? That's the million dollar question."
That's the thing with the Wings right now. It's not about talent or depth. A lack of focus could be why this season they are having some problems that didn't exist for them last season, mainly in the penalty killing and goaltending departments.
"We have a lot of experience and we obviously have a good talent level, but I don't think you can flick the switch in Game 1 of the playoffs. Our hope is as we get closer to the end of the season that there is more of an attention to detail and more focus." -- Ken Holland
It's not an excuse, Holland said, but their staleness doesn't surprise him either.
"After we lost to Anaheim in the third round in 2008, we came back in September and we were focused from the get go," the GM said. "That's why we led the League in a lot of categories. The year after you win the Cup it's a little harder to get your emotion cranked up."
He equated it to climbing Mount Everest. When the season starts everybody is at the base. By the time it's over only one team is at the summit, but "the helicopter comes and three months later you're back at the base and you have to climb the mountain again.
"It takes a lot of energy and a lot of luck, good play, a lot of sweat equity," he added. "You win a lot of games by a goal. It's a fine, fine line. We're not on top of our game and if you're not on top of your game in the NHL."
Fortunately, the Red Wings can score. They lead the NHL with 3.57 goals per game, more than enough to mask their inefficient penalty kill (27th in the League) and spotty goaltending (2.94 goals against per game is 21st in the League).
"We have a lot of experience and we obviously have a good talent level, but I don't think you can flick the switch in Game 1 of the playoffs," Holland said. "Our hope is as we get closer to the end of the season that there is more of an attention to detail and more focus."
The Penguins can add passion to that list or Shero will find himself on the wrong side of the bed again soon.