The Penguins have been considered Stanley Cup contenders, if not front-runners, for years. Turns out, they aren’t exactly thrilled to hear that.
“I can tell you the last couple of years listening to the pundits and the people on TV, through the month of March and into April, to hear how you’re the best, the favorite, you’re a lock … if I knew how to program these TVs [at Consol Energy Center] and shut them off so that we didn’t always hear that from everybody, I would do it,” coach Dan Bylsma said Monday in a seemingly cathartic outpouring.
“So, if we’re not there right now, I’m kind of glad I don’t have to shut the TV off and hear everyone say you’re a favorite, a lock, their pick, final four, whatever goes on on the TV shows. We’re working and striving to be a better team right now in how we play.”
A year ago, the Penguins were winding down a 15-0 March that seemed to have a lot of people penciling them in as Cup winners. Instead, they advanced to the Eastern Conference final and were swept by the Boston Bruins.
This season, they are 5-5-1 in March and — while they still handily lead the Metropolitan Division with 97 points in 71 games and can clinch a playoff spot with a win tonight against Phoenix — have hit a rough patch or two.
“I think it’s a good thing,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said of not having a monster winning streak like a year ago.
“We were all feeling pretty good about ourselves at that point in the season and feeling pretty unstoppable. As we all know, that didn’t turn out so well about a month or six weeks later.
“Right now, to go through some tough times is not a bad thing. I think we’re handling it the right way so far. We’ve just got to keep pushing, keep trying to do the right things, have a good attitude about it. If we stick together and continue those things, it’s going to make us better when some adversity comes in the playoffs.”
Winger Beau Bennett is expected to extend his conditioning assignment in the American Hockey League to three games by playing for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Wednesday against Providence.
Bennett, out since late November because of a hand/wrist injury that required surgery, had an assist in two weekend games with Wilkes-Barre.
“Coming back from injury, it’s not 100 percent perfect, but he was able to … battle hard, play hard, was good on the puck, good in the corners,” Bylsma said. “The timing offensively was a little off. His wall play and his timing through the neutral zone was a little off.
“The second game was better than the first in terms of making plays and being around scoring chances. But still the timing not quite there, as you would expect after not playing for a long time.”
In a 1-0 Sunday loss against St. Louis, the Penguins did not score when they started the second period with 1:32 of a five-on-three power play. That seemed to spark an uproar among some fans because the Penguins used five players, all forwards, who are all left-handed shots.
But that combination — Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Chris Kunitz and Jussi Jokinen — produced a five-on-three power-play goal Thursday against Detroit, and Bylsma called them “our five best power-play guys.”
Bylsma also noted that the Penguins have set plays for those players.
“We have Sidney Crosby passing to the left-hand shots, and, if it goes down to Jussi, he’s passing to four left-hand shots,” Bylsma said. “We run several plays from that set that end up being one-timer shots from our left-handed guys.”
Forward Joe Vitale, who missed the past two games because of an unspecified injury, did not practice Monday. There was no update on his status. … Five of the Penguins’ 2014 Olympians — forwards Crosby, Malkin and Jokinen, and defensemen Brooks Orpik and Olli Maatta — were given the day off from practice.
Shelly Anderson: email@example.com, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.