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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 Penguins’ 6-5 overtime win over Boston…

* The Pens are finally starting to build momentum. With tonight’s victory, they have now won consecutive games for the first time since going on a four-game win streak from Nov. 25 to Dec. 2. And was it ever a character victory for the Pens. They were going up against a team that was on a 10-game point streak and playing with plenty of confidence. Despite a bunch of momentum swings and a lot of adversity – most notably watching a 3-1 lead turn into a 5-3 deficit in the second period – the Pens battled through it all.

“I thought we stayed with it,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “I give the players so much credit for just staying with it and staying in the fight. I think that’s something we’ve talked about a lot in the last couple of weeks, just making sure that we control our own attitude and own pushback when things don’t go our way during the course of a game. We certainly displayed that tonight.”

* It certainly helps the Pens’ best players were just that: Evgeni Malkin scored twice (including the game-winner), and added an assist, Sidney Crosby finished with three helpers, and Phil Kessel and Kris Letang each recorded a goal and an assist. They were absolutely dominant on the power play, in the third period and overtime, carrying play for the Pens and leading them to victory.

* This was a tough night for the starting goaltenders. At one end, Tuukka Rask was fighting the puck all night. The Pens could sense it, and they kept firing it at him, never letting him get comfortable and beating him clean on most of the goals. Putting up six on a goalie like Rask is incredibly impressive considering he had allowed one goal or less in each of his last five starts. At the other end,  Tristan Jarry had been terrific for the Pens heading into the game and earned the nod, but struggled at times against a Bruins attack that scored at least five goals for the fifth time in their last six contests.

He was replaced by Matt Murray late in the second period, who came in and was strong in relief. He made a game-changing save with 1:01 left in regulation and the teams tied 5-5. Brad Marchand was awarded a penalty shot after a breakaway attempt, but Murray turned aside his attempt to keep the score even and allow his teammates to get the overtime winner.

* The goalie switch was a wakeup call for the Pens, who responded almost immediately. With just 3.6 seconds left in the second period and Pittsburgh on the power play, Crosby made an unbelievable no-look backhand pass from the corner right on Malkin’s tape. He went down on one knee to bury the one-timer, and helped shift the momentum back on Pittsburgh’s side heading into the intermission. Riley Sheahan made sure they kept that momentum by scoring the tying goal less than three minutes in. From there, the Pens pressed and pressed and refused to let their foot off the gas pedal like they did in the second, outshooting the Bruins 17-6 in the period.

* Overall, the Penguins dominated on special teams tonight. Despite having a big challenge in Boston’s No. 2-ranked penalty kill, which has been so successful because of its aggressiveness, Pittsburgh’s No. 1-ranked power play continued to thrive as both Malkin and Kessel found the back of the net.

“I just think they’re so dynamic,” Sullivan said. “They’re instinctive. They have a scheme, there is a framework there, but what separates them from other power plays is their movement and their instinctive play when they go off the grid a little bit. As a coaching staff, we laugh a lot internally because we would say, how do you prescout our power play? I’m not sure if it’s possible because sometimes we don’t even know what they’re going to do. I think that’s just an indication of their talent level and instincts that they bring to the table.”

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s penalty kill thwarted both of Boston’s man-advantage attempts with some tremendous blocks and clears. They are now perfect on the PK in seven straight games. The unit nicknamed the Jacques Squad has had to use different personnel with guys in and out of the lineup, but they’ve jumped in seamlessly. Meanwhile, Riley Sheahan has been an anchor, logging a team-high 2:27 shorthanded minutes while also chipping in a goal

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The Pittsburgh Penguins had one of those four-aspirin aftermaths in October, after winning their second consecutive Stanley Cup in June. They gave up 50 goals in 13 games last month, which is one Arizona Coyotes dumpster fire away from being worst in the NHL. The Penguins lost to the Chicago Blackhawks, Tampa Bay Lightning and Winnipeg Jets by a combined score of 24-3. They’ve already expelled their backup goalie and traded for a depth forward.

But they’re 7-5-1. Which is fine, all things considered.

Here are the four major points of concern for the Penguins:

Kris Letang

Letang had an epically bad opening month, with just two even-strength points in 10 games (although he had six on the power play). Letang skated to an NHL-worst minus-14, but seeing as how plus/minus tells you nothing, we’ll go to the possession story: He’s minus-10 in Corsi counts at even strength and has only finished on the negative side of that ledger once in his nine-year career. (The only Penguins defenseman seeing regular time with that kind of shot-attempt deficit is Justin Schultz at minus-24 in 10 games, and he’s currently out with a concussion.)

There’s no question that Letang’s offseason preparation was interrupted by neck surgery, so maybe that’s what has led to a parade of blown coverages and intercepted passes. His 25 giveaways are second-most in the NHL this season.

Yet the Penguins are skating him out like there’s nothing inherently wrong with his game, to the tune of 26:30 on average. It’s been too much, too soon. GM Jim Rutherford told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this week, “He’s coming off a very serious injury. I believe he’s tried to do too much. I believe we’ve played him way too many minutes because we’ve had to with the injuries.”

Their starts stink

The Penguins have been outscored in the first period 21-10, second only to the Montreal Canadiens for opening-period futility. Pittsburgh leads the league in first-period goals surrendered, giving up one more than the New York Rangers (20), whose lack of preparedness in the opening frame has nearly cost coach Alain Vigneault his job.

The Penguins are getting off to slow starts, especially on the road. They’re also 1-4-0 when their opponents score first.

The bottom six

‘Twas a time in recent Penguins history when a general manager was fired for not having the third and fourth lines in order.

This isn’t to suggest that current GM Rutherford is in Ray Shero territory — hell, after two straight Cups, he could probably run for governor were it not what we assume are citizenship requirements — but rather to say that the Penguins’ bottom six is in its weakest state in years.

The losses of Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz and Matt Cullen will likely be felt most in the postseason, when their heroism during the last two runs to the Cup was invaluable. But Pittsburgh misses them now too: The Penguins have gotten 12 points so far at 5-on-5 from their bottom-six forwards, which is equal to what Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have generated on their own.

Getting Riley Sheahan from the cap-strapped Detroit Red Wings was a solid addition. He’s been fine, although not the ultimate answer at third-line center. While one assumes that Rutherford will need to add some low-cost veteran adornments to his lineup for another Cup run, one hopes that players such as Tom Kuhnhackl and Greg McKegg can hold the fort during the regular season.

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The fan in Connor McDavid comes out whenever he sees Sidney Crosby’s familiar No. 87 on TV.

“When you’re watching, you’re hoping for him to do something cool,” the Edmonton Oilers star said.

Defending one of his childhood idols is another matter entirely. McDavid will get an up-close look when the Oilers visit Crosby and the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday.

“If you want to model yourself after someone, I think he’s as good a guy as you can get,” said McDavid, who has three goals and five assists through seven games. “He’s won just about anything there is to win in hockey: individual awards, team awards. You name it, he’s got it. If you’re a young guy like me, that’s what you want to do with your career.”

While Crosby totally gets why sharing the ice with McDavid is a thing, he’d rather not talk about it.

“I think there’s always matchups, storylines and things like that … but we’re just going to go out there and play,” said Crosby, who has five goals and five assists.

At the moment, Crosby and the Penguins have more pressing matters than the hype that accompanies the biannual meeting between two of the NHL’s brightest lights.

The Penguins placed goaltender Antti Niemi on waivers on Monday just three games into his tenure as Matt Murray’s backup, called up rookie Casey DeSmith from their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and acquired forward Riley Sheahan from Detroit over the weekend to address their need for a third-line center. The Oilers, meanwhile, are off to a slow start following their first playoff appearance in more than a decade.

Pittsburgh swept Edmonton last season, a testament to the depth around Crosby. Crosby was held without a point while McDavid had a goal and three assists in the two games.

“They were two really, really entertaining games,” McDavid said. “Obviously you hope for that and hope for a better result.”

The 30-year-old Crosby and the 20-year-old McDavid are separated by a decade but little else.

They finished 1-2 in Hart Trophy voting last season, with McDavid and his league-leading 100 points edging Crosby and his NHL-high 44 goals. For a while last spring it appeared they were on a collision course for the Stanley Cup Final until the Oilers blew a 3-1 lead against Anaheim in the second round.

It’s not unlike the path Crosby and the Penguins followed shortly after he made his NHL debut in 2005. Pittsburgh reached the postseason in Crosby’s second year. The Penguins reached the Cup final in his third year. In his fourth, he raised the Cup with the franchise’s third championship.

“I can only speak of my experience, going to the final and losing was a really good experience for us as a group,” Crosby said. “Going through that, it’s something you learn through.”

The Oilers are hoping last spring can serve as a launching pad for McDavid, whose vision and speed make him a nightmare matchup for anyone tasked with trying to keep up. The responsibility will fall largely on Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang, who should see plenty of McDavid’s No. 97 on Tuesday.

“I just think what’s tough for a defenseman is sometimes a guy can go fast in a straight line and he doesn’t have his head up, he’s just worried about beating you wide,” said Letang, one of the fastest skaters in the league. “This guy is like looking straight into your eyes and he’s going full speed so you’re like, “Oh [no], what is he going to do?’”

Asked to compare McDavid’s quickness to another player outside his own dressing room, Letang responded: “No one is near that guy.”

Oilers coach Todd McLellan will try to find a balance between figuring out a way to steer his team out of its early funk while also appreciating the special talent on the ice.

“It will come down to team play but you do appreciate as a coach, a fan, even a player, their skill set and what they brought to their teams and their communities,” McLellan said. “Even off the rink, both of them are tremendous that way. It’s fun when they’re together.”