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Friday, February 27, 2015

Hitting Their Stride by @BrianK_PI

It's been an up and down season so far for the Pittsburgh Penguins. At times they look like they could play with, and beat, any team that comes their way. Other times they look dispassionate, disinterested, and like a team that if they managed to squeak into the playoffs, they wouldn't go very far. On several occasions the team has played to both extremes in the same game, seemingly changing during the intermissions. Far too often the latter team has shown up and looked outmatched against the top teams in the division.

Consistency has been a major issue for these Penguins, though with all they've been through since being eliminated in the conference semifinals last year that's hardly a surprise. The current roster has ten players who weren't in Pittsburgh last season, and Mike Bales remains the only holdover from last year's coaching staff. 10 players on the current roster weren't in Pittsburgh last season, and the multitude of injuries has led to new players constantly in and out of the lineup. It's been difficult for this team to gel, both to each other and to a new system, but finally the team is getting healthy and capable of playing up to their full potential.

It'd be impossible to draw concrete conclusions, but the last week has been promising . After self-proclaiming last weekend's back to back games as the most important of the season, the team responded with flying colors, beating the St. Louis Blues and Florida Panthers by 4-2 and 5-1 margins. St. Louis currently sits in 3rd place in the Western Conference, while the Panthers are only 2 points out of a playoff spot in the East and look to have a good chance to overtake the struggling Bruins. The Pens followed that up with a 4-3 victory over a Washington Capitals team that had outscored Pittsburgh 10-1 in their three previous meetings this season.

Marc Andre Fleury has been nothing short of dominant throughout the month of February, posting a 0.943 save percentage and 1.55 GAA during the month. For whatever he's been through earlier on in his career, he's been having a career year this season, and this stretch of play is arguably the best stretch he's ever had. The offense, after scoring just 18 goals in the first 9 games in February (2 goals/gm) have exploded for 13 in those past 3 games (4.33 goals/gm). It's a small sample size, but it's certainly more in line with what you'd expect from a team with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. If the Pens can combine that level of defense and goaltending with the type of offensive production they've become known for, it'll be very difficult for teams to beat them in a seven game series.

The Pens are in a position to start building on their current success. Blake Comeau has been a big boost since coming back from injury, as his 3 goals and 4 assists in his 8 games back have helped a struggling offense. Christian Ehrhoff returned for the game against Washington, and he's capable of playing important minutes for a defense that had been running thin. The personnel decisions themselves have been better recently as well. Zach Sill had begun to find himself a healthy scratch before being shipped out of town. Derrick Pouliot playing over Robert Bortuzzo after Ehrhoff's return is a great sign - he's a far better player, has the greater upside, and is making it very difficult for Mike Johnston to remove him from the starting lineup. The shakeup in the top six has provided early dividends, as Perron-Crosby-Hornqvist have looked great together through 3 games and Kunitz looked much better on Evgeni Malkin's wing. Even better, the acquisition of Daniel Winnik adds a player who's been able to put up points, drive possession, and play good defense to a bottom six that was in desperate need of all the above.

The Penguins have a chance to come together with a healthy lineup and start playing up to their potential entering the playoffs. They have the top end talent, and recent roster moves and personnel decisions allow the depth to better support the stars. The playoffs will always be a crap shoot, as a hot goaltender can single-handily lead an underdog to an upset, and bad bounces and breaks can be the difference in a close series, but if the Pens can use the next few weeks to fine tune their approach, get used to playing with a healthy roster, and put forth a consistent effort they'll find themselves in a great position entering the postseason.  

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