The Pittsburgh Penguins appear to have finally found the right trajectory after beating the Atlantic Division leading New York Rangers 3-0 on Sunday afternoon. Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 33-shots to post his 2nd shutout of the season, and 13th of his career. With the win, the Penguins have managed to take 3 of their last 4 games after going an abysmal 6-13-1 between December 1st and January 10th. During that span, the team suffered from inconsistent goaltending, a leaky defense, an unproductive offense, and (at times) ineffective coaching. Contributing to their maladies, the Penguins have been burdened by more than their fair share of injuries, forcing the team to play as many as 5 AHL call-ups per game. However, the Penguins have found success since facing off against the Flyers on the 13th by effectively employing a neutral zone trap, injecting the energetic Matt Cooke on the top line aside Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, and utilizing the chemistry of their AHL call-ups on the lower lines. They have also benefitted on the 2nd line by the return of Tyler Kennedy and the improved play of a freshly signed Jordan Staal. While only time will tell if the team has literally turned the page from December, they are certainly on the right trajectory for a change.
Sunday’s win was marked by a number of encouraging signs. First, the goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury was rock solid. In fact, it was the second game in a row in which he lived up to his potential and skill level, after a month in which he has looked tentative and positionally out of synch. Perhaps we expected too much from him when he returned from injury this season when compared to how he responded at the end of last season after recovering from a lengthy high ankle sprain. While he hasn’t had to be brilliant in net, he has only given up 1-goal through 6-periods of play. Hopefully this will help him regain the confidence that he has been missing. Secondly, the team was committed to and soundly executed their defensive trap system with few breakdowns. The excellent positional play of the Penguins enabled them to conserve their energy and increase their puck possession, rather than chasing the puck in their own zone. By effectively clogging up the neutral zone, they denied their opponents easy entrance into the Penguins defensive zone. Finally, the team played with a full 60-minutes of passion, focus, and attention to detail. Passing was crisp, decisions were sound, and everyone seemed to be on the same page. The Penguins were also disciplined as they gave up a man advantage opportunity to the Rangers just twice. All of these factors contributed to their success, and will hopefully reinforce in their minds what they need to bring to every game.
The Penguins have 2 more games in their current home stand before heading out on a 3-game road trip. The Penguins will host the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night before facing off for a rematch against the New York Rangers again on Wednesday the 28th (after the All Star Game). The Penguins will then have back-to-back road games against the Devils and the Maple Leafs on the following Friday and Saturday nights to close out the month of January.