Penguins captain Sidney Crosby: "It's nice to see us get rewarded for some good hockey now."
By Shelly Anderson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Penguins are the best and hottest team in the NHL with the best and hottest player.
Remember when things weren't so good? When they didn't have a 10-game winning streak and they didn't lead the league in points, as they do going into their game tonight against Toronto. When center and captain Sidney Crosby didn't have a 16-game points streak and wasn't the league's leading scorer, as is the case now?
The Penguins aren't the types to toss around I-told-you-sos, but they could if they wanted.
Over the first several weeks of the season, when the club wasn't very successful at Consol Energy Center, wasn't getting the most out of No. 1 goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, wasn't winning at a rate that seemed appropriate for its talent level, the Penguins refused to flinch.
"You have a choice when you're dealing with things, whether it's adversity in the locker room or in general in sports or just in life," forward Mike Rupp said Tuesday after practice. "Which way are you going to handle it? We went about it in a particular way."
Game: Penguins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs, 7:08 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
Probable goaltenders:Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Jonas Gustavsson for Maple Leafs.
Penguins: Have won six in row at home. ... Are 3-3 vs. Northeast Division. ... Kris Letang has four-game points streak (1 goal, 6 assists) and has not gone more than two games in row without a point.
Maple Leafs: Beat Penguins, 4-3, Oct. 15. ... Are 3-3-1 vs. Atlantic Division. ... Among least-penalized teams in league, 10.7 minutes per game.
Of note: Toronto among worst in NHL in road power play (8.2 percent) and road penalty killing (64.9 percent).
That was to pick out the good, the bad and the ugly -- seeing more good than a lot of their critics on many nights -- and repeatedly talking about believing in themselves and trusting that their game was going to yield more wins than losses soon enough.
"I don't think anybody's too worried about the questioning [we faced] or people who thought we weren't where we needed to be," Crosby said. "There were times we didn't play well and we didn't win, and I think we were pretty honest with ourselves in evaluating that. I think the most important thing is to evaluate yourself honestly. I think we were able to do that through that stretch.
"It's nice to see us get rewarded for some good hockey now."
The Penguins started out 7-8-1, a mediocre run that would have been dismal if not for a four-game winning streak at one point, especially for a club considered a Stanley Cup contender.
The low point might have been the 0-3 start at their new arena. Or a 3-2 loss Oct. 29 at home to Philadelphia that prompted a players-only postgame meeting. Or a no-show in a 5-2 loss Nov. 3 at Dallas.
The last straw -- or at least the last time the Penguins lost in regulation before what has grown to a 12-0-1 string -- came Nov. 10, when the Penguins collapsed in the third period at home, giving up five goals in a 7-4 loss.
After most of their losses, though, the Penguins talked about doing good things despite the outcome.
"We've always said if we play a particular way, we're not too concerned about the wins and losses because we know the wins will come," Rupp said. "And they are now."
Coach Dan Bylsma swears he fully expected the turnaround based on what he saw from his club.
"This is probably going to seem odd: I was confident when things were not going well that we were going to play good hockey just like we are right now," Bylsma said. "I was confident in Marc-Andre Fleury. I was confident in my team and how we were going to play."
That's not just hindsight talking. Bylsma said, other than some breakdowns and an occasional off night, he thought his team had the horses, had the right system in place and was playing well enough to win.
Even a newcomer such as defenseman Paul Martin, who signed as a free agent in July, could see light approaching.
"It's just in how you handle it," Martin said. "With all the guys they have here and all the success they've had in previous years, the young team they have, they were going to have that success.
"Earlier, we were doing a lot of good things. We were just making a couple of mistakes here or there and getting away from what we needed to do. Now that we're on this little streak and winning some games, I think we realize how good we can be when we do those things. Hopefully, we'll continue to do it. It makes more sense as you see what it produces."
It's highly doubtful the Penguins will win each of their remaining 53 games this regular season, and there could be stretches with less than desirable results.
The Penguins expect to use the same approach they had early on.
"That's not going to change the next time we lose a few," Crosby said. "There are going to be questions. If anything, it's good for us as a group to see that. Sometimes you work hard, you do a lot of good things, and you don't always get rewarded. I think it's nice for all of us to see it [work out]."