Yesterday's Mellon Arena matinee wasn't two minutes old when Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury looked out from the cage and saw a large animal flying straight down Center Avenue in his direction. And not just any animal, The Animal.
Sean "The Animal" Avery, recently christened as such by New York Rangers teammates amused to find that his name, his phone number, and his, umm, nickname, were part of a Page 1 story in the New York Daily News regarding a certain notorious madam's black book, fired a vicious shot that Fleury barely turned aside.
Rather than provide a distraction to New York's churning hopes for favorable playoff position, Avery appeared to be stoking them, but there is a certain law of thermodynamics in the second half of this hockey season that can't seem to be outdone, even by the teams who are so hot they're practically salacious.
Any of the thoroughbred animals frothing for postseason post position might reach a temperature higher than Pittsburgh's at any given moment, but no one stays as feverishly excellent.
"That's kind of the feeling now when you come into the dressing room," Jordan Staal said after the Penguins smothered Broadway's team, 3-1. "You don't want to be too confident, but every time we come in here we feel like we have a great opportunity to win."
That's mostly what comes with being 35-15-5 since Dec. 1, the morning they woke up 11-11-2. With yesterday's 10th victory of March, most in any month, Michel Therrien's team is 29-8-5 in its past 42 games, exactly the kind of sustained heat you need to deal with desperate entities like the Rangers, who had lost only twice in their past 20 games.
"It's definitely a blast," Max Talbot said of playing in this atmosphere. "We've been battling for first place for like 30 games now. The fans, we're just feeding off them, they were so loud. We can't wait to get out there. It's good for us to be in games like these at the end of the season. We're forced to play tight, well-disciplined hockey. Today, every little play can cost you a game, and that's playoff hockey."
But as they moved within a breath of the Atlantic Division title they can put away tonight in Manhattan against these same Rangers, the Penguins were outshot for the 48th time in 79 games. They did uncharacteristically well on faceoffs, winning 30 of 55, but they again took needless risks in their own end and did a lot of the so-called little things questionably if not badly.
The identity that appears to be emerging here is that of a team that's probably a little underrated on defense, and rather than do the little things well, it does the big things well. It wins a lot.
"We try not to panic when we're out there getting outshot by 10," Staal said. "We wait for our opportunities. Personally, I don't think we give up too many good scoring chances. We're patient and we find a way to win."
The Penguins are in the middle of a pretty spectacular demonstration that you can afford to be patient when you can put a fourth line out there that generates such consistently textbook shifts as Talbot, Georges Laraque and Jarkko Ruutu, occasionally joined by Staal and Tyler Kennedy. It was soon after those first three started banging in earnest near the midpoint of the first period yesterday when there was finally enough open ice for Marian Hossa's tying goal.
Like being outshot, failure to get the first goal is not a serious issue to these Penguins as it is to just about everyone else. The Penguins are 24-19-5 when they're outshot, and have the fourth most wins in the league in that circumstance, as well as the fourth most when allowing the first goal.
"We just played another tight defensive game," Staal said after assisting on Talbot's huge insurance goal with 46.7 on the third-period clock. "They're a great defensive team so we just kind of waited them out. There was such intensity right off the bat. I don't have a lot of experience with it, but it sure felt like playoff hockey."
Maybe that's because it can't seem to get here fast enough.
Talbot told anyone who'd listen yesterday the time is now, even if the calendar won't allow a playoff puck to be dropped for another nine days. Soon enough, for a team that does the big things well, it will be time to do big things.
Gene Collier can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1283.