The Pittsburgh Penguins kept on rolling last night with a 2-1 win over the Washington Capitals.
Not only did the Penguins sweep the season series against the Caps, but they extended their overall winning streak to 10 games.
I suppose the overused cliche of “March of the Penguins” would be appropriate right about now considering they’ve won all 10 games this month.
Even more impressive is that the Pens are not even at full strength and are still finding ways to win hockey games.
Pittsburgh played without the services of Evgeni Malkin for the sixth straight game, but they were also without Kris Letang last night.
Malkin appears to be close to returning and even said on Tuesday that he’s hopeful he can return on Friday against the New York Islanders.
On Tuesday, head coach Dan Bylsma classified Letang as day-to-day with a lower-body injury.
When this winning streak began, the Penguins were basically just outscoring teams. Defense appeared to be optional at times and both Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun were hung out to dry.
In the six games Malkin has missed, the Penguins have allowed just six goals. By comparison, they allowed 17 goals in the first four games of the streak.
Needless to say, that’s an incredible turnaround, especially without Malkin who is consistently one of the better forwards in the league in regards to takeaways.
Ironically, the defensive woes seemed to resolve themselves when Mark Eaton began patrolling the blue line again. Not to put the jinx on this, but the Penguins are 8-0 with Eaton in the lineup.
His return, coupled with Simon Despres growing up before our very eyes has been a major reason for the team’s recent defensive performances.
Honestly, the only thing that doesn’t make sense to me right now is how Despres isn’t in the lineup every night. Of course, he’s going to make mistakes as he continues to learn his way in the NHL, but the good has far outweighed the bad this season.
To me, he brings more to the lineup than Deryk Engelland. Sure, Engelland will drop the gloves and plays a more physical style than Despres. However, Despres has shown a willingness to use his 6-foot-4-inch, 214 pound frame a lot more recently. I think the physical aspect of his game is largely underrated.
Will he ever be a big, highlight reel hitter? Probably not, but he doesn’t need to be. He picks his spots and relies on his strengths to play sound defense.
Speaking of defense, not only did the Penguins suffocate the Capitals for much of the game, but both of their goals were scored by defensemen.
With the Penguins trailing 1-0 in the second period, Paul Martin launched a missile from the blue line to the shelf to tie the game on the power play.
Then, Matt Niskanen blew the roof off of Consol Energy Center in the third period.
Pittsburgh had just killed off a 4-minute double-minor to Matt Cooke, which had the crowd cheering in appreciation. Just seconds after Cooke was set free, Sidney Crosby led a rush up ice and he dished it to Cooke as they entered the offensive zone.
Cooke fired a quick cross-ice pass to Niskanen coming late to the play and he ripped a wrist shot by Braden Holtby.
The fans went nuts. I was practically off my couch celebrating the goal. If ever there was an example of how momentum works in hockey, this was it. A huge kill at one end led to a goal at the other. Great moment for Niskanen.
After the game last night, the Penguins’ official Twitter account dropped an incredible statistic. According to the tweet, the Pens became the first team in NHL history to record a winning streak of at least 10 games in three consecutive seasons.
That’s a mind-blowing statistic when you consider the Penguins have been ravaged by injuries to star and role players alike over the past few seasons.
If that doesn’t speak to the depth of the franchise and the “next man up” mentality, I don’t know what will.
When the streak began, the Penguins were still in a close battle with the New Jersey Devils for the Atlantic Division lead. They were also battling with the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
Pittsburgh holds a 14-point lead over the Devils and New York Rangers in the Atlantic Division. Remember back when the season started when most (including myself) thought the division would be a three-horse race down to the wire between Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York?
We’re 31 games into the 48-game season and the print shop has already started making the Atlantic Division Championship banner for the Penguins.
Okay, maybe that’s not entirely true, but barring a complete meltdown of epic proportions, the division is practically locked up already.
As for the conference, the Penguins are now three points ahead of the Canadiens and five ahead of Boston. However, Montreal has two games in hand, while Boston has three.
Boston has been the team that has played the fewest number of games all season. They have to have a couple of day-night double-headers coming up soon right?
Anyway, it’s looking more and more likely that the Flyers and Capitals won’t make the playoffs. In addition, the Rangers and Devils are battling for their own playoff lives.
Who would have thought a couple of months ago that at least three of those teams could fail to qualify for the playoffs?
There’s still plenty of time left in the regular season, but the stretch drive is very much upon us and it’ll be fun to watch.
The Penguins will be back in action on Friday on the road against the New York Islanders.
Just remember, 11 is better than 10.
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