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On Jan. 4, the Carolina Hurricanes defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins by a score of 4-0. The Pens’ vaunted offensive stars were blanked. In a critical game. At home.

It was an ugly loss.

It was a low point.

But, it was also a turning point.

After that setback, the Pens won six of their next eight games. And the two losses, both on the road in California, could have been Pittsburgh victories.

“We go on that California trip and we lose two of the (three) games, but we played three pretty solid games,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “It’s about how you play. That’s what we talk with our team about. It’s about controlling the control-ables. It starts with attitude and effort and then we go from there.

“I give our players a lot of credit. They’ve been locked in here. And we’ve got to continue to be in order to get to where we want to go.”

Where the Pens want to go is the Stanley Cup playoffs. That’s a position they weren’t in following the setback to Carolina in early January.

Pittsburgh sat 10th overall in the Eastern Conference and three points behind eighth-seeded Carolina for a playoff spot.

However, their recent 6-2 run – culminating in the Pens’ 3-1 revenge victory against the Hurricanes on Tuesday night – has catapulted the team into the eighth spot with 55 points, and within two points of second place in the Metro Division.

“We’ve had consistency for the most part and need to continue it,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “I think that the situation we’ve been in for a while, our urgency has picked up a lot. That’s a huge difference. Being tougher on the puck and all the little details to win games. We’re more aware of those.”

“We just kept building and building slowly (after the Carolina loss),” defenseman Olli Maatta said. “But we’ve played better. I think if we keep playing the same way and fix a couple of things we’ll be all right.”

The Pens will face the Minnesota Wild on Thursday night at PPG Paints Arena with a chance to enter this weekend’s All-Star break on a 7-2 run for 14 of a possible 18 points. And while the Pens are only two points from second place in the Metro Division, they’re also a mere two points out from the ninth spot and a non-playoff berth. That’s how tight the standings are with 30ish games left in the season.

“It’s coming down to crunch time,” center Riley Sheahan said. “Seeing everyone in the standings and how close they are, we realize that we’re still in the battle. It’s time to get our stuff together and put together some games. I think we’ve been playing some good hockey.”

There’s no doubt the Pens are in the midst of their best stretch of hockey on the current season. So that begs the question, what has changed with the team over the past three weeks.

“Confidence,” Justin Schultz told me.

“From stringing some wins together and getting back to our style of play,” he continued, “playing fast, good puck possession, holding onto pucks in the O zone. It feels like we have the puck more than we don’t.

“Confidence is huge. We’re getting back to that winning feeling and knowing what it takes. It was a slow start, but we’re picking it up now. We should be fine.”

And that confidence couldn’t be coming at a better time.

“The season is (almost) over,” Maatta said. “We didn’t start the way we wanted. We have to have that urgency right now.”

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Thoughts, musings and observations from the Pens’ 4-2 win against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena

* The Pens need this win. Pittsburgh had lost 3 straight games, each by 1 goal. To be so close, but come up empty has been frustrating for the team. But to lose a 2-0 lead to the last-place Coyotes in a game that Pittsburgh completely dominated would have really been a heartbreaker.

Fear not. Pittsburgh rebounded from surrendering a third-period game-tying goal to retake the lead and win the game. Even head coach Mike Sullivan said that the feeling on the bench was that the Pens would score the go-ahead goal and win the game. That’s the kind of resilient swagger that the Pens have lacked lately. Hopefully, this win will help them get their mojo back.

* What a third period for defenseman Olli Maatta. First he was the goat for losing a puck at his own crease that culminated with Arizona tying the game. Then he made a game-saving stop by diving over his own goaltender to clear a loose puck in the crease before Brad Richardson could convert. Then he finished it all off by scoring the game-winning goal with a mere 14.7 seconds left in regulation. From goat to hero in 10 minutes.

* The game was also a little bit of redemption for center Evgeni Malkin. He was the man that threw a hard pass to Maatta that resulted in a turnover and Arizona’s tying goal. But he would go on to setup Maatta for the winner after an incredible shift in the offensive zone. Malkin was a horse on that final series, and we can’t discount his goal late in the second period either. On that tally, Malkin drove to the net and relentlessly wacked at the puck until it went in.

* The Pens finally broke though with some offense early from the least likely of sources: the penalty kill and Carter Rowney. Pittsburgh was disadvantaged late in the second period when Bryan Rust forced a turnover at the blue line. He and Rowney were off on a 2-on-2. Both ‘Yotes defenders jumped on Rust and he made a patient, perfect backhand pass around the outstretched stick of Oliver Ekman-Larsson and to a wide-open Rowney. The Pens’ winger went crossbar, post and in for the tally.

* The penalty kill stepped up with a goal, but its first priority is always to kill the penalty. And the Pens deserve an immense amount of credit for that of late. The PKers haven’t given up a goal in the past 8 straight games, a perfect 23-for-23 in that span.

* We’ll end with a congratulations to Mike Sullivan for recording his 100th win with the Pens, becoming just the fourth coach to hit the century mark for the organization.

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Thoughts, musings and observations from the Pens’ 4-3 loss against the Toronto Maple Leafs at PPG Paints Arena.

¬†* The Pens couldn’t overcome an early deficit in their showdown with the Leafs. Pittsburgh spotted Toronto a 3-0 lead, which included a 2-0 advantage just 1:42 minutes into the game. The Pens gave a valiant effort to battle back, but the squad came up short.

* Rookie goaltender Tristan Jarry has filled in admirably for the Pens in the absence of Matt Murray, who missed his fifth straight game with a lower-body injury. Jarry made his seventh straight appearance for Pittsburgh, and fifth consecutive start. Jarry had done a great job of handling such a demanding workload. But, as one would expect, the amount of games did take its toll on the young netminder and it finally caught up to him tonight.

Jarry misread a fake shot by Morgan Rielly and couldn’t make up ground to stop Connor Brown 83 seconds into the game. Just 19 seconds later Jarry was caught outside of his crease and scrambled to recover, but was unable to deny James van Riemsdyk.

Jarry appeared to be a step slow and just off his mark. It’s completely understandable that the 22-year-old would tire eventually. The Penguins were asking Jarry to shoulder too heavy of a burden. He did his best, and this loss shouldn’t mar what he has done for Pittsburgh during these past two weeks.

* From one rookie goaltender to another. Pittsburgh turned to Casey DeSmith at the start of the second period. It was only the second-ever career appearance for DeSmith, and he handled himself masterfully. He slid left to right to deny a great cross-ice chance from Zach Hyman. Later DeSmith showed some confidence by coming way out of his net to challenge an off-wing shot by Nazem Kadri. Overall, it was a good showing from DeSmith.

* The Pens’ attempted comeback was thwarted by Tyler Bozak’s tip goal to give Toronto a 4-2 lead. Bozak’s stick was definitely high and the officials reviewed the play. However, it was hard to determine if the stick was above the crossbar. It was the right call to let the goal stand, but it was a back breaker for the Pens.

* Riley Sheahan scored two goals in 80 games during the 2016-17 season, which included a stretch of 79 straight games without a goal. Sheahan already has three goals on the current campaign, and with his second-period tally against Toronto he has goals in back-to-back contests.

Sheahan has 8 points (3G-5A) in his last 12 games. His confidence is growing and finally the pucks are going in for him. Sheahan has been great defensively and on the PK for the Pens. Now he’s becoming a two-way threat.

*Sheahan’s goal was setup by a nice pass from rookie Dominik Simon. He made his season debut and had an immediate impact. Simon was rewarded for his great play with ice time late in the game on Sidney Crosby’s wing and picked up his second assist of the game on the captain’s late goal. Simon played with confidence and it showed.

* There was a scary play early in the second period when Dominic Moore knocked Olli Maatta into the boards feet first. Maatta was down for some time before slowly making his way to the bench. Thankfully, Maatta was OK and didn’t miss a shift.

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Thoughts, musings and observations from the Pens’ 2-1 loss against the Chicago Blackhawks at PPG Paints Arena.

* The difference in this game was special teams. Chicago scored two power-play goals in the game, while Pittsburgh’s power play was held off of the scoresheet. The Pens penalty kill unit has been struggling lately, and they have yet to find a cure.

* Matt Hunwick returned to the lineup after missing the past 15 games with a concussion. He made an immediate impact. Hunwick scored a shorthanded goal in the third period that tied the game at 1-1.

Hunwick also saved a goal when Matt Murray lost the puck and Lance Bouma had an empty net in front of him. Hunwick stretched out his leg to make a kick save that any goaltender could appreciate.

Hunwick didn’t stop there. He finished the night with six blocked shots, the highest total in the game.

* Hunwick wasn’t the only Pens player to come up with a ridiculous save. During a penalty kill, an errant Blackhawks shot went off the end boards and out to Patrick Sharp on the opposite side. Murray couldn’t recover fast enough, but Riley Sheahan slid in the crease to kick away Sharp’s shot.

* Lost in the mix of all the Pens players playing goalie, was the play of the team’s actual goalie. Murray was tested early when Jonathan Toews tried to sneak a shot through his five-hole from along the goal line. Murray sticked the puck away. Minutes later Nick Schmaltz had a breakaway and also tried to tuck the puck through Murray’s five-hole. Again, Murray brought down the paddle to close the door. Murray also stopped Sharp on a breakaway in the third period.

It was a solid night from Murray, who had surrendered six goals to the Blackhawks in Chicago earlier this season. The performance will definitely help with his psyche and confidence.

* Ian Cole continues to assert himself in the physical spectrum. Cole laid another explosive hit – for the third game in a row – when he blew up Ryan Hartman just inside the blue line. In previous games Cole had delivered crushing hits to Buffalo’s Sam Reinhart and Ottawa’s Bobby Ryan.

* The Pens appeared to have tied the game at 2-2 in the third period, but the Blackhawks challenged goaltender interference on Olli Maatta. The goal was overturned, and rightly so. It was clearly interference.

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Patric Hornqvist has a knack for bank shots.

You might remember such a finish in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final at Nashville. Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne served as the backboard then. That goal gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead with 95 seconds left and ultimately propelled Pittsburgh to a second straight Stanley Cup.

Hornqvist again worked his magic from below the goal line vs. visiting Buffalo Nov. 14. This time he ricocheted the puck off Sabres forward Ryan O’Reilly to cut the Penguins’ deficit to 2-1 with 19 seconds left in the first period.

Hornqvist finished the game with a goal and two assists. That hiked his stats to six goals and five assists in 17 games and helped the Pens win, 5-4 in OT.

Hornqvist wasn’t exactly basking in the glory of his bank shot against Buffalo, however.

“That was 100 per cent luck, but I’ll take it,” Hornqvist said.

Luck is the residue of where hard work meets design, and the Swedish right winger tries doggedly to execute that formula on a consistent basis.

The Penguins are built on skill and speed, and Hornqvist is hardly bereft of those qualities. But the 6-foot, 188-pounder provides the team with a collisional element that helps greatly along the wall and near the blue paint. Hornqvist is zero fun to play against. Just ask opposing players.

Hornqvist skated on a line with Riley Sheahan and Conor Sheary against Buffalo, and Coach Mike Sullivan gave that trio its due afterward.

“They were our best line,” Sullivan said. “Every time they were on the ice, they were on the puck. They were relentless on the forecheck. They forced a lot of turnovers. They got a lot of pucks to the net. They played on the inside.

“They did a lot of the things we’re trying to establish consistently with our whole team.”

Hornqvist was also happy with his line’s showing. Hornqvist set up Sheary’s goal in the second period to get the Pens to within 3-2. A long pass by Olli Maatta got Hornqvist loose behind Buffalo’s defense to start that sequence.

“We played really hard, and we got some chances,” Hornqvist said. “The puck was bouncing our way, too. My goal was just luck, and then I fed it over to [Sheary]. If you work hard, you get those breaks, and I think we worked hard.”

The win left the Penguins at 10-7-3. Not an ideal start, but Hornqvist remains hopeful.

“I’ll take the two points,” Hornqvist said. “We didn’t play our best. But we put five pucks behind the goaltender, and we’ll take that. But we still need to clean up some things if we want to be where we want to go.

“We haven’t played our best game, but we still have a decent record. That’s what a good team does. But we still need to be way better. We can’t control those [20] games behind us, but we can control the next 60-plus games.”

The Penguins twice bounced back from a two-goal deficit to defeat Buffalo, forging a 3-3 tie on Sidney Crosby’s second-period power-play goal.

The tally, Crosby’s first in 12 games, came when he netted a rebound after Hornqvist got a piece of Phil Kessel’s shot. The Pens were 1-for-5 on the PP.

“We moved the puck around really well,” Hornqvist said. “Phil did a good job to hold onto the puck and find a lane to shoot it. Both me and Sid were on the doorstep and Sid found the puck.

“We might have to shoot a little more [on the power play], but we still created a lot of chances. I liked our power play tonight.”

The Penguins didn’t hold a lead against Buffalo until Sheary scored in OT. Hornqvist was happy with the comeback, nothing that the Penguins battled back from a two-goal deficit to get a point at Nashville in the previous game, losing 5-4 via shootout Nov. 11.

“When we come back in this kind of game, it gives us confidence,” Hornqvist said. “It gives us a good boost, to know what we’re capable to do. Today was a step in the right direction.”

 

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¬†Thoughts, musings and observations from the Pens’ 5-4 overtime win against the Buffalo Sabres at PPG Paints Arena.

* The script on this one played out just like Saturday in Nashville, except the ending was much better for Pittsburgh. The Penguins had a rough start, surrendering turnovers and odd-man rushes, and fell behind, 3-1 and 4-3. Pittsburgh would charge back to even the score late, just like in Nashville. But this time, the Penguins completed the comeback by netting the winning tally.

* The Pens have shown the ability to comeback in any game and against any opponent. It’s a nice weapon in your arsenal. But no doubt they would much prefer to have better starts, play with the lead and used their puck possession game to tilt games in their favor.

* How boss was that headman pass by Olli Maatta on the Pens’ second goal? Maatta had the puck behind his own net and banked a pass up to Patric Hornqvist at the opposing blue line. That sent Hornqvist up ice with speed to create a 2-on-1 and a Pittsburgh goal on Conor Sheary’s finish.

* Sidney Crosby found the back of the net for the first time in 12 games. A Crosby turnover in the opening seconds of the second period led to a Sabres goal. After that, Crosby responded by playing with energy and vigor. He tied the game at 3-3 with his power-play tally.

* I love seeing the “dump and retrieve” plays between Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin – harkening back to the HBK days. When Kessel gets the puck anywhere on the ice, even in his own zone, and Hagelin has a clear lane up ice, Kessel will flip the puck into a corner in the offensive zone. Hagelin then has to win a footrace to retrieve the puck, negating the icing and giving the Pens a de facto entry. It was an effective tool with HBK, and Kessel and Hagelin are going back to the well.

* Ian Cole leveled Sam Reinhart in the neutral zone with a clean open-ice hit. Right after the hit both Jack Eichel and Evander Kane dropped the gloves and went after Cole. It was a clean hit, but in this day of age in the NHL any big hit seems to demand a response by the inflicted team. Why must every hit warrant a response? Next time, Reinhart will probably keep his head up.

* Riley Sheahan had to wait 80 games before scoring his first goal of the year during last season. He’s been snake-bitten again so far this season, goal-less 19. But he came darn close to breaking through when he carried a puck across the crease and tried to tuck the puck in. If not for the outstretched pad of Robin Lehner, Sheahan would be on the board.

Sheahan did pick up an assist when his hustle created a turnover late in the second period, and let to a Hornqvist tally.

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On Nov. 7, 2016, Darran Dunlap was diagnosed with leukemia. A doctor’s visit for hip pain culminated in something much scarier.

One year later, Darran is doing well, but is still undergoing treatment and dealing with the radiation effects of chemotherapy. On Tuesday, she spent the night inside PPG Paints Arena with her favorite sports team as part of the Penguins’ “Hockey Fights Cancer” Awareness Night, watching as Pittsburgh beat Arizona, 3-1, her smile glowing throughout her entire night.

Penguins vice president of communications Tom McMillan called to invite the family to the game, and as Darran’s father Colin said, it’s something you can’t say no to.

“We’ve never been one to do something to try to get public recognition for her,” said Colin, who is a sports media personality in Pittsburgh. “But we knew it was a sense of visibility to raise awareness and raise funds for pediatric cancer, so that’s why she did it and why we elected to do it. People see a little girl like this, and it’s very real, a person that a lot of parents can relate to a, a real face and a real person.”

The star of the night arrived around an hour before puck drop. Darran mingled with Dan Potash, and was pretending to be interviewed, as he showed her where the players stand and where he conducts his interviews before they tell him to “get out of here Dan,” to which Darran replied, “get out of here Dan!’

Darran then greeted the Penguins players as they entered the ice for warmups wearing their commemorative purple jerseys. The jerseys, to be autographed and auctioned off online will benefit research at the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center and the Mario Lemieux Foundation.

With the clock running down and the players stretching close enough to the hallway to be heard, Darran exclaimed, “Wow, here they come!”

Goaltender Matt Murray was positioned at the opening of the locker room, and was enthusiastically welcomed by Darran. Murray waved back, prompting a trek of hockey players past the youngster, who extended her hand for fist pumps while marveling at their size.

It was one of the many highlights of the night that helped lift Darran’s spirits, literally.

After exchanging fist pumps with the Penguins lineup, her favorite players Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin finally emerged from the back of the line. After they proceeded down the runway, Darran exclaimed “Yay! So cool!” and jumped up and down in excitement, gaining some airtime in the process.

Darran watched part of warmups being held up by her father along the glass, before heading back inside to try to stay warm. Darran was relaxing in the media room when she was greeted by her next guest, Iceburgh. Darran quickly rose from her seat and exchanged a handful of hugs and high fives with the Penguins mascot. Iceburgh air-kissed Darran good-bye, making a ‘mwah’ smacking noise each time, a noise that Darran echoed throughout the hallways after their interaction.

The 6-year-old then made her way down to the Zamboni ramp to stand alongside Jeff Jimerson for his rendition of the national anthem, tapping her feet along to the music of the Penguins opening video before being introduced.

Darran is a big fan of Jimerson and the anthem, consistently standing and holding her hand over her heart at home when she watches it on TV.

Tonight, surrounded by 18,498 fans, Darran took her familiar stance, hand over her heart, still as can be, alongside one of her idols, displaying a certain amount of poise uncanny for someone of her age. She sported a smile and took in the atmosphere as the crowd cheered during her introduction, which provided a much different scene than just watching from home. Darran pointed out to the near blueline, lined with the Penguins starting lineup, and waved.

Jimerson wrapped up the final notes of the anthem with his hand atop Darran’s head, and the two fist pumped at the end of the performance. It was truly a heartwarming feeling that enveloped the building, to see the pure joy on Darran’s face, realizing just how cool the moment was, how special Hockey Fights Cancer Awareness Night was.

“She stands with her hand over her heart before every single game,” Colin said. “It’s like the game begins when the anthem starts for her. She sees it on TV so much, so for her to actually be in that moment, she was like ‘wow, this is really special.’”

Darran’s connection with the Penguins started shortly after her diagnosis. Colin hosts the morning show on 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh, and when he mentioned what his daughter was going through, the outreach of support overwhelmed. The Penguins were one of the many who answered the bell, and gave their support when Darran needed it most.

One of the key catalysts of the Penguins’ involvement was Mario Lemieux, who battled and overcame Hodgkins-Lymphoma during his playing days. Lemieux sent a letter to Darran in the hospital, along with an autographed puck in hopes of lifting her spirits and to encourage her to keep fighting.

The Penguins have two players who have faced cancer themselves. Phil Kessel was diagnosed with testicular cancer when he was 19 years old, while Olli Maatta was diagnosed with a tumor in his thyroid, also at 19 years old. Both had surgery and were declared cancer-free shortly after, aided by early discoveries.

“It’s inspiring, it’s crazy how mentally strong these kids are,” Maatta said. “Especially with what they are going through.”

Darran has been incredibly inspiring, through her determination to stay strong through this trying ordeal. A video posted by Colin on his Twitter account depicted his daughter refusing to be carried up to bed, instead walking up the stairs each night to her room. Despite the chemotherapy impacting her strength to do so, she would accomplish her task.

This summer, Darran received a big boost when she opened the front door of the house for a special guest. Penguins equipment manager Danny Kroll brought the Stanley Cup to the Dunlap’s house, surprising Darran and her twin brother, Declan. Darran went crazy, exclaiming her disbelief at the surprise appearance, and hugging the trophy. The gesture by Kroll, and seeing his daughter’s happiness, brought Colin to tears.

“Danny Kroll could’ve done anything he wanted with the Stanley Cup,” Colin said. “And he did, later that day. Danny came to our house in the morning with the Cup. Here’s a guy that’s a regular Pittsburgh guy that decided to use part of his day with the Cup to come to our house. That really melted our heart and touched our heart. There’s a lot of people that are going through a lot of different things, and for him to take the time out when he could have been with his family was really super.”

Today, Kroll emerged in the arena’s hallway to see Colin, who he’s friends with, and was immediately greeted with a hug from Darran.

It’s been an emotional ride for the entire Dunlap family, but especially for Darran, as treatment continues. She’s remained strong throughout, and her courage has led to ESPN directing an E-60 segment on Darran, highlighted by how each of Pittsburgh’s three professional teams have reached out to her during her battle with leukemia.

Pittsburgh, with each of its professional sports teams cladded in black and yellow, is unique.

It’s not uncommon for a team to support a young child who is battling a life-threating disease. However, for each professional sports team in the city to reach out and make a worthwhile impact in supporting a child who needs it most is something that is unique.

It’s one of the many things that makes Pittsburgh special. As her battle with defeating leukemia continues, Darran has the whole city behind her, supporting her, and a glimpse of that was shown tonight when she was audaciously cheered for by the standing room only sell-out crowd prior to the anthem.

While the city of Pittsburgh can unite over its sports teams collectively sharing black and yellow, it’s great to see them uniting for something worth much more, in providing support for a young girl who needs it most, while she continues to fight her battle with cancer.

Tonight, the Penguins helped provide a memorable night for Darran, with a game that culminated in a Penguins win.

“It says, I think, a lot about the class of the organization,” Colin said. “From the top on down, to the players, all the way to the equipment guy.”

When Darran was asked about her favorite moment, it was hard to choose.

“Everything,” Darran said.

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Thoughts, musings and observations from the Pens’ 4-2 loss against the Vancouver Caucks at Rogers Arena.

* The Pens fell in the finale of their season-long 5 game road trip. Although there was a lot to like about the game for Pittsburgh – its effort, chances generated, ice titled – it didn’t net them the desired result. Pittsburgh finished 1-3-1 on the trip, including 1-1-1 in western Canada.

* Jake Guentzel set a Pens’ rookie record with 13 playoffs goals last season, which was the 2nd-most ever in NHL history. But goals have been sparse for Guentzel at the start of the 2016-17 season. He only had 3 goals in the first 15 games of the current campaign. Guentzel has been getting chances, but the pucks just haven’t gone in.

The coaching staff, trying to get Guentzel going, gave him a shift with the top power-play unit. And the move worked. Sidney Crosby made a behind-the-back, between-the-legs pass from the slot to Phil Kessel at the near dot. Kessel immediately snapped the puck to the opposite part of the crease to Guentzel, who re-directed it in for his 4th of the season.

* Speaking of, the Pens’ power play continues to be a lethal weapon. They already ranked second in the NHL entering the contest against Vancouver. Pittsburgh only added to its success with another man-advantage tally against the Canucks.

The Pens’ power play has scored in 10 of the team’s 11 road games this season. Pittsburgh’s road power play is clicking at an astronomical 39.5-percent rate (15 of 38). With the Pens’ 5-on-5 scoring lacking, their power play has been a huge reason they’ve been able to have any success.

* Matt Murray had owned the Canucks during his brief NHL career. He was perfect in the first two outings against Vancouver, stopping all 56 shots against to record two shutouts. Vancouver broke that shutout streak at 127:07 minutes with a goal from Brock Boeser. He would add two more for the hat trick, and an assist for a 4-point night.

* The Pens defensive corps – already missing Justin Schultz and Matt Hunwick with concussions – took a beating in the game. Brian Dumoulin was hobbled while blocking a shot. Olli Maatta was stunned when he was tripped and went headfirst into the boards. Kris Letang laid out his body to stop a pass in the defensive zone and his momentum carried him into the boards. He played the rest of the shift hunched over in pain. And Frank Corrado was launched by Derek Dorsett into the boards. He left the game briefly, but returned. It was a bruising night for the blue line, but they battled through it.

The forwards didn’t have things much better as winger Phil Kessel was slew-footed and fell backwards on the ice, jarring his head. He left for the remainder of the second period, but was back on the ice to start the final frame and finished the game.

* Credit must be given to goaltender Jacob Markstrom. He made several incredible saves throughout the course of the game. Particularly on Kessel, who could have had three goals on the night with all the glorious chances he had. But Markstrom wasn’t having any of it.

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Thoughts, musings and observations from the Pens’ 3-2 win against the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Place.

* To help get the Pens out of their current funk, head coach Mike Sullivan is going back to an old formulat. It’s the one he used when he first arrived in Pittsburgh in December of 2015. At that time, the Pens had little confidence and many faults in their game. Rather than try to fix everything at once, he used a step-by-step approach. Focus on one thing at practice or in a game. As the team mastered that, he incorporated another detail while all along preaching that the team “embrace the process.”

Sullivan is once again preaching to his team to embrace the process. Tonight, their emphasis was on winning puck battles with cooperative efforts. The team won a majority of those battles and was a big reason for Pittsburgh’s success.

* For better or worse, the Penguins-Oilers matchups will always be known as Sidney Crosby vs. Connor McDavid. Tonight was the fourth installment of the unspoken rivalry. And Crosby holds a perfect 4-0 edge on McDavid. It may all be media fodder, but it does keep things entertaining.

* Crosby and McDavid didn’t disappoint. McDavid made one of the sickest individual moves I’ve seen in years when he deked the puck through the skates of Olli Maatta, then made a backhand pass through Kris Letang and onto the tape of Leon Draisaitl. It was an easy tap-in for Draisaitl. McDavid did all the work.

Not to be outdone, Crosby also made a highlight reel setup late in the second period to tie the game at 2-2. Crosby was working with Conor Sheary on a 2-on-1. The Pens captain made a perfect backhand pass that slid by the outstretched stick of Adam Larsson and right to Sheary. He buried for the tally.

* Matt Murray got some of his swagger back against the Oilers. He was very impressive against Edmonton’s first power-play opportunity of the game, making not one, not two, big three big stops to keep Edmonton off of the board. Murray’s best stop was when he stretched out his pad to make a split save on Zack Kassian’s shorthanded breakaway. But his point-blank stop on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with two seconds left in the game wasn’t too bad either.

Murray was pulled in his previous appearance after allowing four goals on nine shots against Winnipeg. He always seems to play his best following a bad game. Murray had the bounce back the Pens needed tonight, and shut things down once the Pens got a late third-period lead.

* The Pens power play connected for two goals in the contest, the second goal proving to be the game-winner. Pittsburgh has now scored at least one power-play goal in all nine road games this season.

The Penguins, who have struggled to score 5-on-5 this season, have relied heavily on their power play to win games. And the unit came through again with a clutch pair of goals. The two man-advantage goals were the difference in the game.

The only blemish was their failure to score on 1:42 minutes of a 5-on-3.

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Thoughts, musings and observations from the Penguins’ 4-3 win over the Florida Panthers on Saturday at PPG Paints Arena…

* Panthers goalie James Reimer may have nightmares after this game, and one reason for that is Sidney Crosby. Crosby scored twice in this game, both coming from the side of the net and each being one of those impossible plays he makes look easy. On the first goal – which came on the power play – I saw Crosby sneak to the back door unnoticed. I saw Phil Kessel realize he was there, and wondered if he’d be able to thread that pass diagonally through the slot. I didn’t have to wonder long, as Kessel quickly made a perfect pass that Crosby whacked right into the net. On the second goal, Kris Letang floated a pass that Crosby again chipped out of mid-air, through Reimer’s pads and in. Crosby was the First Star of the game, and his hand-eye coordination should have been the Second Star.

* Reimer is also probably going to have nightmares about Patric Hornqvist. It was a typical day at the office for Hornqvist, who had a game that completely personified his style. He was in and around the crease and making life miserable for the netminder. As a result, Hornqvist got a goal that’s a perfect example of how he plays. Olli Maatta got the puck to the front of the net, where Hornqvist was of course stationed. He then dug at it until he was able to get it past Reimer. While Hornqvist was rewarded that time, he was punished shortly after when he barreled over Reimer and was sent to the box for goalie interference. Hornqvist is back to himself after missing the first three games due to injury.

* The Pens talked a lot about tightening up following their 5-4 loss to Tampa Bay on Thursday, which was one of those defense-optional, back-and-forth track meets. While they were definitely better in that regard tonight, they still have room for improvement. The Panthers had momentum for long stretches of the game, particularly at the beginning of periods, and it resulted in a lot of shots and scoring chances against. The Pens need to do a better job of handling those swings and being a team that’s difficult to play against.

* Matt Murray had a heavy workload, seeing 46 total shots. It was something the Pens had expected after the Panthers put up similar numbers in their previous few games. And it wasn’t just about the quantity of shots for Florida – they had plenty of quality scoring chances as well. Murray handled it well, coming up with a number of big saves to keep his team in the game and allow them to pull ahead. He was particularly impressive in the last minute-plus of play when Florida pulled their goalie for the extra attacker.

* The Pens spent more time in the box than they would’ve liked – Mike Sullivan said he wants his team to cut down on stick infractions – but overall I thought the penalty kill was solid. While they did allow a goal during a sequence where the Pens took two straight penalties in the second period, they also scored a goal during that time as well. Tom Kuhnhackl did particularly impressive work on the play to capitalize on a turnover in the neutral zone that he took to the net, getting taken out on his way there. Greg McKegg picked it up and sniped a backhand. It was his first goal of the season, scored against his former club. He’s been so solid for the Pens, and it was nice to see him finally get one.