Fire Still Burns on Occasion for Still-Capable Penguins
Wins over the Flyers and Blue Jackets might signal a turning point in what's been a mediocre stretch of hockey for a team from which much more is expected.
The last game the Penguins played reminded everyone they’ve still got it.
The next couple ought to be revealing in terms of how badly they still want it.
The NHL’s two-time defending-Stanley Cup champions took the ice Tuesday night in Philadelphia having lost seven of their last 10 games and having won just 19 of their first 40.
The Pens were also three points behind the Islanders in the race for the second and final wild card playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and just one point ahead of the Flyers in the race to stay out of last place in the Metropolitan Division.
It was at best an unbecoming reflection and at worst an uncomfortably inept first half of the regular season for the Pens.
That being the case, they didn't desperately need to make a statement in Philly as much as they did need to establish that they still have a pulse.
They ended up doing both.
Their 5-1 victory over the Flyers was as complete as it was convincing.
It checked all the Mike Sullivan boxes in terms of how the Penguins are supposed to play the game, including one they’d especially neglected while periodically snoozing through the first 40 games to the tune of 19-18-3.
The Penguins went to the dirty areas against the Flyers. They got their nose over the puck, they played on the right side of the puck and as a result they were a difficult team to play against, with and without the puck.
And this time, their night’s work included an appropriate dose of “push back.”
That’s what Sullivan longs to see from his team as a counter when momentum is threatening to slip away.
The Penguins’ standing order in such situations is to take it back.
They did so this time by pushing back to score three goals in a span of 2:57 after the Flyers had wiped out the Penguins’ 1-0, second-period lead.
So much for Philadelphia’s momentum.
The rest pretty much fell into place after that, as it had for the most part over the course of the previous two seasons.
“Push back” is a beautiful thing.
That’s something the Penguins had dusted off when their stars had been willing to muck it up when necessary –– Evgeni Malkin even dropped the gloves –– in what eventually became a 3-2, shootout victory on Dec. 21 against Columbus.
And that’s something the Pens had conjured up in abundance while in the process of cutting into 2-0, 3-1 and 4-2 deficits on the way to what eventually became a 5-4 shootout victory on Dec. 27 over Columbus.
The Blue Jackets have become quite a rival in recent seasons.
The Flyers have been a traditional rival, and a bitter one in the Sidney Crosby era.
Anyone else sensing a trend?
The need to pick it up a notch just for sanity’s sake, and the chance to stick it to teams the Penguins love sticking it to, conspired nicely in all three instances to highlight what has otherwise been a mediocre stretch of hockey for a team from which much more is expected.
Which means that the 2017-18 Penguins might have finally seen the light.
They emerged from their Broad Street beating of Philly trailing the Islanders by one point and the Hurricanes by one point for that aforementioned second wild card position in the East.
And they have games coming up against the Hurricanes on Thursday night, at the Islanders on Friday night and against the Bruins on Sunday night.
If they can find a way to treat the Hurricanes, Islanders and Bruins like they do the Blue Jackets and Flyers, the Penguins might finally be onto something.
The alternative is to remain mostly uninspired most nights until a legitimate sense of desperation takes hold –– at which point it may or may not be too late to actually do something about it.