Forget streak, break provides much-needed rest for Penguins
Team Chara's Evgeni Malkin and goaltender Tim Thomas celebrate their 12-9 victory Sunday against Team Alfredsson in the NHL All-Star Game in Ottawa, Ontario. Will Malkin finish the second half of the season as the league leader in points for his second Art Ross trophy?
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There is, players will tell you, no bad time for a break in the NHL schedule.
Not if a team has lost four or five or six games in a row, certainly. And not even when it has won seven consecutive games, as the Penguins did before the NHL shut down for the better part of a week.
The schedule is simply too demanding, the games too grueling, to complain about any chance to recuperate and rejuvenate, they say.
And so the Penguins -- whose current winning streak is their longest since they ran off 12 in a row Nov. 17-Dec. 11, 2010 -- enter their game tonight against Toronto at Consol Energy Center with no misgivings about being idle since a 3-2 shootout victory last Tuesday in St. Louis.
- Matchup: Toronto Maple Leafs at Penguins, 7:08 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
- TV, Radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Jonas Gustavsson for Maple Leafs.
- Penguins: Have won three in row at home to raise record there to 14-7-2. ... C Evgeni Malkin's has scored seven of his past eight goals in third period or overtime. ... Have outshot opponents in 15 consecutive games.
- Maple Leafs: Are 11-11-1 on road, where they have gone 1-3-1 in past five. ... C Tyler Bozak does not have goal in 10 games. ... Own 11-6-5 record in one-goal games.
- Hidden stat: Maple Leafs have not allowed a power-play goal in 2012, a run of 11 games.
"We'll welcome that break anytime, but it's kind of a shame that we happened to be on a roll like that," defenseman Matt Niskanen said after practice Monday.
"When you're winning, it's nice to keep going, to try to pile up those wins. But at this time of year, you have to take advantage of any break you get."
While few teams are surging the way the Penguins have lately, they aren't the only club that has gone a week -- or longer -- between games.
Indeed, only two teams (Montreal and Detroit) had a shorter break than the Penguins and most other clubs, and then by only one day.
Consequently, at least in theory, the ice should be fairly level when the Penguins and Maple Leafs -- and teams all across North America -- meet.
"There's not one team that's going to have any substantial momentum going in from an All-Star break," forward Richard Park said. "Everyone's starting from the same position."
The rest the Penguins -- aside from All-Stars Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Kris Letang -- got while being off from last Wednesday until Monday likely will be appreciated as the next week plays out, because tonight's game is the start of a stretch of five in eight days -- all in different cities.
The Penguins and Maple Leafs will have a rematch Wednesday evening at the Air Canada Centre and, while the Penguins will return home from there, they then will visit Boston Saturday, New Jersey Sunday and Montreal next Tuesday.
Neal, though, downplayed any concerns about the negative impact of the layoff, or that the Penguins are coming back to a home-and-home series.
"We'll have our legs," he said. "We'll be ready to go. I think we'll be all right with having back-to-back games."
The extended time off almost certainly will affect performance levels, even if not all players will react to it the same way.
Winger Matt Cooke believes the toughest challenge in the early going will be attaining the emotional level needed to compete successfully, while Niskanen suggested that "timing and game situations" are what tend to cause him trouble in the wake of time off.
"Things seem to happen a lot faster [on the ice]," he said. "When you're on a roll and playing with confidence and you're in the routine like that, the game tends to slow down for you."
After being away, Niskanen said, "the puck doesn't feel as familiar to you, and guys seem to be moving faster."
It isn't realistic for the Penguins to believe they can maintain, or even regenerate, the momentum they had before the break; they were playing pretty solid hockey, and one strong game seemed to segue directly into the next.
Still, the positive mindset that was developed, and reinforced, while they were piling up those victories has to work in their favor as they move out of the break.
"Confidence is confidence, whether there's one day between games or five days," Cooke said. "That's the situation we're in. We can't really change or make a difference. We just have to be ready to play."
The Penguins come out of the break with a 28-17-4 record, good for a share of fifth place in the Eastern Conference. They've had a couple of strong finishes since Dan Bylsma took over as coach, and feel they're capable of another.
"The last two or three years, down the stretch, this team has played really well," forward Pascal Dupuis said. "We know what it looks like. I don't see why this group of guys won't play the same way.
"These seven games in the streak, it's great to have. At the same time, we can't feel good about what we did in the past. It's the stretch [leading] to the playoffs right now.
"We feel good about ourselves, but we have to bring it on the ice."
First Published January 31, 2012 12:00 am