The Penguins are coming off a 1-2 homestand.
It doesn't get any easier on the road in back-to-back games. They play tonight at Buffalo, which leads the Northeast Division, and tomorrow night at New Jersey, which, like the Penguins, has 53 points atop the Atlantic Division. The Devils are 3-0 against the Penguins.
"This is a big couple of games for us. We're up for it," winger Bill Guerin said yesterday after the Penguins practiced at Mellon Arena.
The Penguins beat Buffalo, 2-1, in a shootout 10 days ago. Backup goaltender Patrick Lalime was sharp but he isn't Ryan Miller. Tonight, the Penguins are likely to face Miller, the starter, who going into last night's schedule led the NHL with a .935 save percentage, was second with a 1.98 goals-against average and fourth with 21 wins.
Tomorrow, the Penguins can expect to face goaltender Martin Brodeur, who earned his NHL-record 104th career shutout last week against the Penguins and leads the league with 23 wins.
"It should be exciting," coach Dan Bylsma said of the two games. "As you go on in the season and you try to establish yourself as a good team and an elite team in the league, you're going to have these matchups where you play teams at the top of the divisions, teams that also are establishing themselves as good teams. Those are a great test."
Penguins center Sidney Crosby, who in June at age 21 became the youngest captain to raise the Stanley Cup, won the Lionel Conacher Award as The Canadian Press male athlete of the year.
He is one of 12 hockey players to win the award and the sixth among that dozen to win it twice. He also won it in 2007.
Crosby, of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, garnered 248 points, including 72 first-place votes among Canadian sports editors and broadcasters to easily beat out Montreal mixed martial arts star Georges St-Pierre, Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash and New York Islanders rookie John Tavares.
Defenseman Mark Eaton hopes to pick up where he left off -- playing in a game at Buffalo. He wants to be back in the lineup tonight after missing three games because of a left knee injury.
"I've tested it out the last three days," he said. "It's held up well, so I feel like I'm ready to go."
Eaton got hurt in the second period of the Dec. 19 shootout win when he and the Sabres' Mike Grier got tangled and slid into the end boards.
It will be up to Bylsma to make the decision on whether Eaton will play. The coach liked the way Eaton handled some of the physical drills in practice.
Right winger Tyler Kennedy understands now that all 13 regular forwards are healthy, there is heavy competition to remain in the lineup.
"It makes guys push each other," said Kennedy, who was the healthy scratch among the 13 Sunday night, a 4-3 loss to Toronto. He was the first one on the ice, more than 20 minutes before the start of practice.
Kennedy has no points in his past 11 games, but Bylsma said he's not measuring Kennedy's play by numbers alone.
Instead, Bylsma wants to see Kennedy get back to using his speed and tenacity to forecheck effectively and help the Penguins push their way into the offensive zone.
"That's what he needs to get back to doing," Bylsma said. "A lot of that's puck management, and a lot of that's paying attention to the details on the forecheck."
The penalties, particularly for hooking, are adding up for Penguins center Evgeni Malkin. He has 14 minor penalties in his past 10 games and ranks third on the team with 52 penalty minutes.
Bylsma noted that often Malkin loses the puck and, in trying to regain possession, fouls an opponent.
"Doing a better job of managing with the puck would keep him out of those positions," Bylsma said. "Sometimes you lose that puck, you're frustrated and you want to get it back. He's in that position where he's now behind the play."
There are times, though, when Malkin barely crosses the line as he attempts to poach the puck, Bylsma said. Malkin leads the team with 30 takeaways. He led the NHL last season with 94.
"The one scenario we don't want to take away from the guy is [when] he's on the forecheck and he's pursuing the puck from a good defensive position," Bylsma said. "He's one of the best in the league at taking pucks away. It's a fine line."
Shelly Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .