Friday, March 6, 2009

Dream Revived: Penguins Take Five In A Row

Last Wednesday night, the Pittsburgh Penguins barely squeezed by the National Hockey League's worst team, the New York Islanders, by the score of 1-0. Petr Sykora's rebound goal with 2:28 to play in the third period prevented the Penguins from playing overtime with the depleted Isles for the second time in nine days.

The sketchy victory gave Pittsburgh 66 points, good for 10th in the Eastern Conference and two points arrears of the crucial No. 8 position, the final playoff berth.

The win also improved the Pens to 3-1-1 under the tutelage of interim head coach Dan Bylsma, but the pair of standings points earned was just about the only thing to love about the effort.

The subdued joy wasn't totally due to the game's poor aesthetics, though. Pittsburgh had taken the ice at Mellon Arena without the services of captain Sidney Crosby, who sat out his first of four straight contests with a groin strain, and was about to embark on a five-game road trip, the longest of the season.

Conventional wisdom held that the Pens would have to earn at least half the available points during that span in order to stay within hailing distance of the East's top eight.

Nine days following that greasy triumph over New York, the Penguins most recent loss remains the 5-2 setback Feb. 22 in Washington, the same city they'll have to conquer this Sunday if they wish to complete the franchise's first-ever perfect 5-0 trip.

That's right, the same team left for dead by many when former coach Michel Therrien was shown the door nearly three weeks ago has strung together five consecutive wins, each more impressive than the last.

Thursday night's dismantling of fellow playoff-hopeful Florida by the count of 4-1 was a warning shot over the NHL's bough, serving notice that last season's Stanley Cup runners-up are not about to go quietly into that good night.

This week in Florida, a state in which the Pens have traditionally struggled, the Black and Gold turned two potentially troublesome games into virtual walkovers, thanks to a host of contributors.

Tuesday's tilt featured the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team with 2007-08 Penguins Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts, Mark Recchi and Adam Hall on its roster. While Roberts and Recchi were scratched due to their purported involvement in imminent trades, the looming deadline for deals provided enough distraction to fill the void.

With ample reason to let their intensity wane, the Penguins received two first-period goals from newcomer Chris Kunitz en route to a routine 3-1 victory.

Center Jordan Staal, rumored to be a prime candidate for a trade, ignored the chatter and turned in one of the best two-way performances of his career, helping stifle a team that has just dropped eight on the Northwest Division-leading Calgary Flames.

The trading deadline passed the next afternoon with minimal roster extraction—only winger Miroslav Satan was missing, demoted to Wilkes-Barre—and a significant injection of grit and experience courtesy of general manager Ray Shero.

Electing to travel a less-spectacular route this spring, the Pens GM added Islanders captain Bill Guerin and fourth-liner Craig Adams via waivers from Chicago. The acquisitions immediately made the Penguins a deeper, grittier team, attributes that showed themselves Thursday night against the Panthers.

The first half of the contest was a waiting game, each side poised to capitalize on an opposition misplay.

With Guerin inserted with the mended Crosby and Kunitz, the third and fourth lines were bolstered with the additions of Pascal Dupuis and Tyler Kennedy, both of whom were tried on the top two lines for the majority of the season.

Along with Staal, Adams, Matt Cooke and Max Talbot, Dupuis and Kennedy were back in their grinding comfort zones, allowing Bylsma to fearlessly roll four lines all night long.

It proved to be a winning strategy for the Penguins, as they appeared to be the fresher team in the third, pumping in the last three goals - including two by Kennedy - to provide the final 4-1 margin.

Pittsburgh is now tied for sixth in the conference with 74 points; Florida and the New York Rangers are alongside.

Suddenly, improbably, making the playoffs isn't the only goal. The fight for home ice in the first round (fifth-place Montreal and No. 4 Philadelphia are only one and four points ahead, respectively) has become winnable because of Pittsburgh's 7-1-1 record under "Disco" Dan.

And to think, the dream might have been reborn with that near-nightmare against the Islanders.

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