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Penguins

Shea-ved Ice: Pens’ Division Title Hopes Still Alive

By: Casey Shea
James Neal, Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz, Jordan Staal
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The Pittsburgh Penguins will end up being the death of me. I don’t know what’s worse: knowing that fact and the likely outcome, or being naïve to it and being caught by surprise.

Over the last week, the Penguins have played four games. Each had tense moments throughout and three required a shootout.

Against the New York Rangers, the Pens were dominating until Matt Cooke lost his head and delivered an elbow to the jaw of Ryan McDonagh.

As we all know, that play not only cost the Penguins the game, it cost Cooke the remainder of the regular season and first round of the playoffs.

Did losing one of their best penalty killers and role players prevent the Penguins from bouncing back against the Detroit Red Wings the very next night? In a word, no.

The Penguins stormed out to a 4-0 win before Henrik Zetterberg scored a late goal in the second period to give the Wings life.

In the third period, it was all Detroit. It largely resembled Game 7 in 2009 where Detroit seemed to come in waves as the Penguins just tried to hold on for dear life.

Unfortunately, the Red Wings were able to score three goals to send the game to overtime.

No one found the back of the net in overtime and James Neal scored the lone goal in the shootout to lock up two huge points in the standings.

This game was almost a microcosm of the entire second half of the season for the Penguins.

They were rolling after 40 minutes of play, practically laughing in the face of adversity. Yet, despite blowing a four-goal lead, the Penguins found a way to manufacture a win. Not to mention it was at Joe Louis Arena of all places.

On Thursday, the Penguins invaded Philadelphia and put on one of their best defensive performances of the season.

They held the mighty Flyers to only 20 shots and the lone goal Marc-Andre Fleury gave up was a complete fluke.

However, the Penguins responded early in the second period with a power play goal by Tyler Kennedy. Yes, you read that correctly. The Penguins scored on the power play for the first time in what seems like an eternity.

In the third period, the Penguins hit two crossbars and Sergei Bobrovsky left several fat rebounds in dangerous areas, but the Pens just couldn’t get a stick on them.

For the second straight game, the Penguins went to a shootout and won thanks to a ridiculous move by Alex Kovalev and a game-winner by Chris Kunitz in the fourth round.

Speaking of Kovalev, when is he going to start shooting the puck?

I’m starting to think there’s some Kool-Aid the Penguins players are drinking that makes them forget to shoot, yet still allows them to talk about getting more shots in interviews.

The Penguins got Kovalev to help bolster the goal scoring, yet he only has one goal since coming here. Granted, Neal only has one goal as well, but at least he’s putting the puck in the general vicinity of the net rather than getting cute with the puck.

With Brent Johnson nursing an upper-body injury, Fleury was forced to play in back-to-back games.

Lucky for him, he didn’t have much work against the Flyers and he almost got even less against the Devils Friday night.

Any time the Devils are involved, you know it’s going to be a snooze-fest. Perhaps that’s not the right wording, but you can’t expect the goal lights to burn out. In the case of this game, the goal light only came on once and it was in the shootout.

Yet again, it was Neal who scored the game-winner in the shootout to give the Penguins six out of a possible eight points over this stretch.

In a recent rant about the Cooke situation, I stated that his actions not only cost the Penguins two points in the standings, but that he may have cost the Penguins any chance at winning the Atlantic Division.

As it stands right now, the Penguins are only four points behind the Flyers for both the division and Eastern Conference lead. Now, Philadelphia still has one game in hand, but they will be in town on Tuesday.

The game is a must-win for the Penguins to have any shot at claiming the division crown. They’ll still need help, but if they take care of business on their end, there’s still a good chance they could pull it off.

Their recent success has opened up a five-point gap over the Tampa Bay Lightning for fourth in the conference, which had been cut to only one point recently.

However, while shootout wins have given the Penguins six points in the standings this week, there’s no shootout in the playoffs.

The team needs to start figuring out ways to outscore opponents by finding the back of the net in regulation.

If this team goes to overtime in the playoffs as often as they have been recently, the collective sound of monitors flat-lining at hospitals around the area will far outdo the goal horn at CONSOL.

Personally, I can already feel my chest tightening at the prospect of three or more overtime games in the first round of the playoffs. While I was hugely disappointed the Penguins’ playoff run came to an early end last year, it gave me a chance to watch playoff hockey and enjoy it for what it is.

There’s nothing like it and you can’t fully appreciate it until you don’t have a rooting interest in it. Believe me, it’s great seeing your team make a legitimate run at the Stanley Cup every year. However, the best way to get over your team being knocked out is to watch your buddies hyperventilate during overtime as their team’s playoff future hangs in the balance.

Anyway, the addition of a guy like Sidney Crosby would obviously help the offensive woes, but there’s no telling if he’ll be back this season. His progression in on-ice workouts would have you believe that he’s closing in on a return to the Penguins’ lineup this season, but until I actually see it, I won’t be getting too excited.

There’s seven games left in the season and the playoffs are in sight and there’s a buzz about this team right now. This is a team that no one wants to face in the playoffs.

It’s a great time to be a Penguins fan.

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