Pens' playoff positioning drives need to excel
By Karen Price
Saturday, February 10, 2007
TORONTO - The Penguins played one of their worst games of the last month Thursday night in Philadelphia. They still got two points and moved up a spot in the standings -- from fifth to a tie for fourth with the Ottawa Senators.
The last time the Penguins were in fourth place or better in their conference this late in the season was 1999, the same year that Jaromir Jagr won his first Hart Trophy and his third Art Ross Trophy with 127 points.
Tonight, they take on the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre in a "Hockey Night in Canada" matchup, and a win would put them seven points ahead of the ninth-place Leafs.
It's a big game, but then again, every game for the last month has felt like a playoff game for the players. They expect the same to hold true over the final 27 games after tonight.
"I think the last month it's all been big games for us, just to be able to stay in the race," goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. "Hopefully, if we get those two points again (tonight). We'll be ahead, but not by much. There are so many teams involved in the race and not many points between them. Hopefully, we can just keep going like this and be at the top of the standings."
The Penguins are 10-0-2 in their last 12 games and are the only team in the league without a regulation loss in the last 10 games. The last time the Penguins lost in regulation was exactly one month ago, falling to the Florida Panthers, 5-2, on Jan. 10.
The Penguins' longest unbeaten streak is 18 games between March 9-April 13, 1993, when they won 17 in a row and earned a tie in the last game of the season.
But going into tonight's game, the Penguins lead the ninth-place Maple Leafs by only five points and the 10th-place New York Islanders by six.
"You look at the standings, and it's still incredibly close," center Dominic Moore said. "I think we just have to maintain our focus on improving. That's been our focus for most of the year. I think we play better when we're not watching the standings and we're just working on improving, and I think that's got to be our attitude. If we are looking at the standings, it's got to be looking up the ladder, as opposed to looking at who's behind you. I think that's the better way to approach it."
Thursday night's 5-4 shootout win over the Philadelphia Flyers was not one of their finest efforts of late, which every player in the dressing room will readily admit. The Penguins turned the puck over too much, got away from the team game they'd been playing so well, and they were only 3 for 5 on the penalty kill, for just a few examples.
But the Penguins (28-17-9) still found a reason to be even more confident going into tonight's game than, perhaps they would have been before.
"As much as it wasn't a great win, it's also a confidence booster in the sense that we didn't play well and still did it," Moore said.
Not that they're taking anything for granted.
"For the last 12 games, I think we've been playing pretty big games," center Maxime Talbot said. "A couple teammates and I were talking about how, if we'd won only half of the games we've won the last 12 games, we wouldn't even be in the playoffs. We'd be playing for .500. We're still battling every day for the playoffs because we're only five points out. Every game is huge."