I can’t even begin to tell you how much I enjoy hockey at this time of year.
The intensity, passion and desperation all indicate the playoffs are just around the corner.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have essentially been in playoff mode for a month now due to the extensive injuries. However, last night’s overtime win over the Boston Bruins may have been the most important win of the season so far.
While they haven’t won a game in regulation since they beat the Buffalo Sabres 3-2 on Feb. 4, it’s still a win.
Since the win over Buffalo, the Penguins have gone 3-6-4 and saw their lead over Washington for home ice in the first round get cut to two points. After last night’s win, the lead has grown to four points.
The reason the Penguins are still near the top of the Eastern Conference is because they have gone beyond regulation in four straight games and seven of their last nine.
What struck me most about last night’s win was the team’s compete level in the second game of a back-to-back. It didn’t look good early on as Boston nearly buried one in the game’s opening seconds, but the Pens responded.
Marc-Andre Fleury came up with a couple big saves and the Penguins were able to force countless turnovers in Boston’s end throughout the game.
The forecheck was incredible and led to Dustin Jeffrey’s overtime winner. About midway through the first period, the hitting picked up and it was sustained for the remainder of the game.
The best hit for the Penguins came when James Neal was tracking down a puck in the Bruins’ end. Zdeno Chara initiated contact as they closed in on the puck, but Neal dropped the big man and sent him crashing into the boards.
Neal is still in search of his first point as a Penguin, but he’s looking better and better in every game. He seems to be learning the system and is getting better scoring chances as a result.
Just wait until he buries that first one. That’s when I think we’ll see him relax a little more and focus on playing his game.
The compete level was high for every player on the roster last night. You could see how much they wanted a win after having one slip away the night before in New Jersey, by no fault of their own.
The defense showed incredible character and will after being overextended against the Devils due to Kris Letang’s early ejection.
Paul Martin ended up logging 35:26 worth of ice time in Friday’s game and then tacked on another 28:36 against Boston. If you do the math out, that’s 64:02 of ice time over two games.
Did I mention those minutes were logged against the two hottest teams in the NHL?
Forget what happened before Friday for a moment. The Penguins just took three out of a possible four points in two hotly contested games. Everyone has to be happy about that.
Not to mention, the Penguins have ever so quietly climbed within two points of the Flyers for the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference lead.
Granted, the Flyers have two games in hand (they were pasted by the Rangers 7-0 this afternoon), but it’s still impressive to see the Penguins gaining ground while treading water.
Last week, head coach Dan Bylsma said Chris Kuntiz may play over the weekend. He didn’t, but it would lead you to believe that he’s close to returning.
Yesterday, I said that the offense needed to step up. Three goals may not sound like much, but it was enough to beat the best goaltender in the league this season and that has to count for something.
Tim Thomas came up big a few times in the game to give the Bruins a shot at stealing a second point.
I say steal, because their game-tying goal with under a minute to go was a result of a few errors.
First, Matt Cooke waited forever to take a shot at the empty Boston net. The shot was blocked and the play went back the other way. Then, for a second straight night, Zbynek Michalek was victimized by the refs during a crucial moment late in the game.
On Friday, he was sent to the box for a questionable hooking call that New Jersey capitalized on to win the game. Last night, Mark Recchi grabbed a hold of Michalek’s stick in the corner after being hit. The puck worked its way around the net to Milan Lucic, who fed David Krejci for a one-timer in the slot. Fleury had no chance.
Michalek immediately appealed to the official to no avail.
The first thing to come out of my mouth at the top of my lungs was something that cannot be used in print. I started thinking, “Here we go again, another overtime.”
Much to my delight, the Penguins didn’t look like a team that just gave up the game-tying goal with under a minute to play. They shrugged it off and came out on the attack.
As Jeffrey closed in on Thomas with a step on the defender, I inched forward in my seat. When I saw the puck in the back of the net, I started screaming like the Pens had just won the Stanley Cup. That’s what this time of year is all about.
The stretch drive and playoffs are unrivaled in any professional sport here in the United States. The NFL comes close, but it’s one game a week. These NHL players are playing two and three, even four nights a week giving it everything they have just for a shot at making the playoffs.
Once the playoffs start, it turns into war. Each man on the ice does everything possible to inch one step closer to realizing their dream of lifting the Stanley Cup above his head.
You can already feel the intensity in these regular season games. There’s 15 games left for the Penguins, so I hope you’re ready for a wild ride.
I know I am.
You can follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/CaseySheaPens.