A year ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins were five games into a 48-game regular season. Teams and fans around the NHL were happy to be back at the rink after several months of lockout-related boardroom posturing.
This January, the feeling is quite different. To be more precise, there isn’t much feeling at all.
I described Monday night’s 3-0 win over the Sabres as workmanlike, and I still see that as being the best adjective for what occurred before the latest capacity crowd at Consol Energy Center. Yes, there were moments of excitement, but the game had a perfunctory tenor often seen in post-holiday, pre-trade deadline NHL games.
Some teams don’t have the luxury to settle into routine during this portion of the season. For the Penguins, Monday night was game No. 53 of 82, but for the Sabres there are jobs to be won and new management to impress. You could sense some of that urgency in the third period, when Pittsburgh got too comfortable with a 2-0 lead.
Luckily for the Pens, Marc-Andre Fleury made a succession of three or four key saves that kept Buffalo from making a game of it. Good goaltending eases a lot of things, like closing out a win against an inferior team. Getting two points each from Tanner Glass and Craig Adams helps, too.
The Penguins are victims of their own success at this time of year. They have a 17-point lead over the second-place Rangers in the Metropolitan Division, so a second straight division title is all but assured – even with 29 games left to play.
Also, Pittsburgh has won 15 of 16, 22 of 26 and 40 of its past 48 matchups at Consol Energy Center. That type of domination is impressive, but it can encourage complacency as well. When the worst team in the NHL shows up for a run-of-the-mill weekday game, it’s natural to be a little less excited than if the Flyers or Capitals were in town.
Adding to the potential for ennui, this is a team whose leaders have done it all in the NHL. At least subconsciously, they know that the club’s proving ground comes in the spring, not the dead of winter. That’s no excuse for poor performance, but it does explain a noticeable intensity gap.
Finally, the Sochi Olympics are at the doorstep, just six games away for seven Penguins. As for the rest of the team, they’ll enjoy a nice break from the grind of a six-month schedule. Either way, the looming hiatus from NHL life has to have some distracting effect, even for well-trained professional athletes.
The league’s tempo figures to increase once the medals are handed out and March begins. Until then, the Penguins have to find internal motivations to excel.
With a record of 24-5-1 since Thanksgiving, I’d say they’ve done well so far, even if the action hasn’t always been scintillating.