May 5, 2014; New York, NY, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta (3) controls the puck in front of New York Rangers right wing Mats Zuccarello (36) during the third period of game three of the second round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden. The Penguins defeated the Rangers 2-0 and now lead the series 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Penguins Stanley Cup Gameday Skate: Playoffs Have Been A Work In Positive Progress


You have to admit the Pittsburgh Penguins are looking a little different these days.

Ever since Game 4 of their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Penguins have looked more committed, more attentive, more focused, more cohesive. In short, they’ve been a coach’s dream.

Who knows what effect Dan Bylsma‘s public complaints about his team’s work rate had, but ever since he vented to the media prior to Game 5 of the first round, the Penguins have been playing high-quality playoff hockey.

To be clear, they haven’t been perfect. Their third period in Game 6 at Columbus was too passive, as was the final frame of their Game 3 victory over New York on Monday. Also, the Penguins were strangely flat in the first period of Game 1 against the Rangers.

But every team has those moments at this time of year. They tend to occur against good competition, which is the norm in the playoffs. The L.A. Kings looked downright awful in their first two postseason games, and the Boston Bruins are struggling to find consistency in their current series against Montreal.

The Pens had plenty of shaky moments of their own in the first round, but they’ve shaped up considerably. That fact isn’t just borne out in the won-lost record – Pittsburgh is 4-1 after a 2-2 start to the playoffs – but also in their possession numbers.

Related: Discussing the Penguins’ playoff performance on the Burgh Brew podcast

After finishing in the middle of the pack in shot-attempt differential during the regular season, the Penguins are at or near No. 1 in the postseason in creating shots and preventing their opponents from doing likewise in close situations. Those numbers match what we’ve been seeing: everything’s been clicking better for the Pens lately.

In fact, if this were the regular season, the Penguins would be unbeaten, as all three of their playoff losses have come in overtime. It says a lot for their current level that they’ve yet to be trumped in regulation, although there are no moral victories in springtime hockey.

On an individual basis, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have been driving play in superb fashion, Paul Martin and Kris Letang are controlling the action on the back end, and Marc-Andre Fleury now boasts the best even-strength save percentage in the playoffs at .949.

All of isn’t to say the Penguins are on an unstoppable roll that will take them to another Stanley Cup Final, but their improvement in the past two weeks bodes well for their immediate future.

Tonight’s Game: Penguins vs. Rangers at Madison Square Garden in New York
Series Status: Penguins lead 2-1
Faceoff: 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBC Sports Network
Radio: 105.9 The X

At the Penguins’ morning skate Wednesday, defenseman Brooks Oprik worked out with his teammates. Orpik (lower-body injury) hasn’t played since Game 4 of the Columbus series, but this was the second straight day he was seen on the ice. His status for tonight’s game remains uncertain.

As for the Rangers, they anticipate having forward Chris Kreider back soon. The second-year player had surgery on a broken hand in late March. Kreider took line rushes today and is medically cleared to play; his return would be quite welcome for a team that hasn’t scored in consecutive games.

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