What a difference a day makes.
Times were troubled in Penguin land, fans had a lot of frustration and we saw a 200 comment discussion about it. Every part of the team deserved credit, but it seemed like coaching and management got a heavy dose of the negativity. A day after a 3-0 win, everything seems a little better, but the truth is this next weekend will show a lot to see where the Penguins are.
The first test is the New Jersey Devils, tomorrow afternoon. Afternoon games always throw off a player’s routine, which can make for a disjointed enough game. Throw in it’s against the Devils, a team the Penguins have notoriously struggled against recently, and that makes observers wonder even more. The Devils, despite the free agent defection of captain Zach Parise, are 3-0-3 on the year, and the only team in the Eastern Conference yet to suffer a regulation loss. While that sounds pretty good, they’ve also lost 3 straight games (two in OT, 1 in a shootout), which makes them seem a little more down to earth. On top of that, every single game that New Jersey has played this year has been a one-goal game (save a 3-0 win against Philadelphia). They’ve been involved in all close games, and have somehow found ways to pull out wins.
The follow-up game Sunday is a nationally broadcasted game against the rival Washington Capitals. The Caps are reeling right now, currently with a 1-5-1 record. But Washington plays the Flyers tonight and the Pens on Sunday, both at home, and two games against two of their rivals could be exactly what they need to fire Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom back to life. The Caps never lack for energy or emotion when the Pens come to town, and this game will be a big test for Pittsburgh to get in and out with the win.
For the Pens, at 4-3-0, we don’t really know what to expect. Last night’s 3-0 win at the Rangers was an excellent show of defending and goaltending. Two nights prior the team looked beyond flat and disinterested and rolled over to the Islanders at home for a 4-1 loss. Which Pittsburgh team will we get this weekend?
One working theory of hope is that Pittsburgh is shaking off the rust and lurching back to the successful regular season team that we’ve seen under Dan Bylsma. Other than Evgeni Malkin, every other Penguin was on the sidelines during the lockout in terms of getting game action. This has especially seemed to leave a lot of rust for veterans like Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis and Matt Cooke. As days and games go by, the hope is those players will get back in the swing of things and back to their 2011-12 levels of play, when all set personal career highs in major categories like goals and points. The benefit of getting back in NHL game shape is also something to consider for Sidney Crosby, who played just 29 games from January 1, 2011 until the end of the lockout. Timing and vision will return, once enough repetition is accomplished.
As we’ve been reintroduced to, there’s a concept that things are never probably as bad or as good as they seem in the regular season. With that in mind, it’s fitting the next two opponents of the season are the Devils (no regulation losses) and the Capitals (just one win), two teams on opposite sides of the spectrum so far. For the Penguins, it’s going to take a consistent effort in order to prove that they’re more like the team that beat the Rangers rather than the one that stunk up the place against the Islanders.