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.”