NHL fans probably expected wild swings of emotion in this shortened 48-game season, and the Pittsburgh Penguins have provided a great example of why.
No more than one week ago, the Penguins were searching for solutions after a tepid 4-1 home loss to the New York Islanders dropped them to 3-3-0. In a typical year, an inconsistent six-game stretch could be written off as largely irrelevant, even if it came right at the start of the season, when knee-jerk reactions are usually rampant.
With the usual 82-game slate sliced nearly in half, six games feels more significant. Nevertheless, the Penguins have demonstrated how quickly those results could be forgotten in a campaign such as this, as a four-game winning streak has boosted them to first place in the 15-team Eastern Conference.
The three teams immediately behind them – Boston, New Jersey and Tampa Bay – each have at least one game in hand on the Pens, but the fact remains that the Pittsburgh team we’ve seen over the past seven days has the look of one that could easily be in contention for the East’s No. 1 seed come springtime.
As Puck Daddy’s Sean Leahy pointed out in his report from Tuesday night’s win on Long Island, the Penguins have been taking care of their own end of the ice extremely well over the past four games. (They rank fourth in Behind the Net’s proprietary even-strength plus-minus metric.) While Pittsburgh was outshot Tuesday for the first time this season, much of that can be attributed to giving the Islanders seven power-play chances.
For the second time during the past week, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was spectacular when needed and strong overall in helping his team earn a victory. The 27-year-old has had four excellent performances in six starts, a rate that will encourage coach Dan Bylsma and his staff to keep employing backup Tomas Vokoun liberally.
Beyond goaltending and a commitment to team defense, perhaps it just took a while for many of the Penguins to re-coordinate their usual motor patterns. As noted here nine days ago, only six Pittsburgh players skated for other pro teams during the lockout, the lowest number in the NHL.
ESPN.com’s Craig Custance spoke to Bylsma recently (subscription required) about that theory, and the fifth-year coach related that he’s seeing “a little better execution, a little better knowledge of what’s expected…system-wise.” Even on a team like the Penguins that lost just a couple of regulars from last season’s edition, habits need to be re-formed after significant time away from structure. Human beings aren’t plug-and-play.
An interesting aspect of the Penguins’ first 10 games has been the vast difference between the results at home and on the road. Pittsburgh is 6-1 when wearing the visitors’ white jerseys, outscoring their opponents 25-14 in the process. Looking past goal differential, the Pens have visibly played a more organized brand of hockey outside Pittsburgh city limits.
However, Saturday’s 5-1 stomping of New Jersey at CONSOL Energy Center could be a sign that the Penguins are ready to put their road discipline on display for their home fans. With Pittsburgh scheduled to play six of its next nine at CEC, starting with Thursday’s matchup against a desperate Washington club, there will be plenty of opportunity to prove it.