It’s stupefying to realize the Pittsburgh Penguins have won seven in a row just a couple weeks after stringing together 15 straight. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, if the Pens beat Buffalo on Tuesday night at Consol Energy Center, they will be the first team in NHL history to win 23 of 25 games.
But if the Penguins’ perfect March was a demonstration of the roster’s true capabilities, their current streak might be even more impressive. Pittsburgh has been without Sidney Crosby for the entirety of it, as the league’s leading scorer recovers from a broken jaw. James Neal, who was among the NHL’s top goal scorers when he suffered a concussion April 5, has missed the last six.
On top of that, defending league MVP Evgeni Malkin has been on the shelf with a persistent shoulder ailment for the last four games. Defenseman Kris Letang returned from a lower-body injury five games ago, but fellow smooth-skating blueliner Paul Martin has been absent since late March with a broken thumb.
Monday’s game at Ottawa took the theme of missing pieces to a new level. Letang and rookie winger Beau Bennett stayed in Pittsburgh for precautionary reasons, and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was home with his expecting wife.
Regardless of their half-strength lineup, the Penguins went about their business with nary a complaint, issuing the desperate Senators a 3-1 defeat at Scotiabank Place. With Chris Neil and many of the Sens obsessed with exacting vengeance on Matt Cooke, the Pens built a 2-0 lead in the first period and kept their heads while most in Ottawa were losing theirs.
It was almost too perfect that Cooke set up Tyler Kennedy’s late clinching goal in classic Cooke fashion, crashing in on the forecheck and sliding the puck in front. But Monday was about more than poetic justice; rather, it demonstrated the professional culture in the Penguins dressing room.
All of that starts with Dan Bylsma. Fitting that last night marked his 200th victory, since I can’t remember a better example of why he’s the best coach in Penguins history. A relentless style of play combined with a consistent mindset has helped Pittsburgh persevere through multiple long-term injuries to key players in recent seasons.
The playoffs have yielded disappointing results since the Stanley Cup run in 2009, but let’s take a moment to recognize the regular-season excellence of the Bylsma-led Penguins. His career record of 200-91-25 is terrific even before considering how many times the Pens have taken the ice without at least one of their most productive skaters.
The legacy of Bylsma’s teams will be further shaped in the postseason, and rightly so. A roster with this much talent should gun for the title every year. However, no matter what happens this spring, don’t forget games like Monday’s, in which poise and preparation once again got the better of passion.