PITTSBURGH – There’s been no post-Stanley Cup slump yet for the champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
More like a Stanley Cup surge.
They are 7-1 with no losses yet in five road games. Marc-Andre Fleury leads all goaltenders with a 7-0 record. The Penguins also are getting the complementary scoring they’ve often lacked, and that’s making up for slower-than-usual starts by captain Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
There was considerable talk before the season began about a possible letdown by a team that has played in two successive finals and won the Stanley Cup in June. Instead, the rest of the NHL might need to worry more about the Penguins not letting up.
Since coach Dan Bylsma took over in mid-February, the Penguins are 25-4-4 during the regular season – an average of slightly more than two losses per month.
“(I’m) pleased with the record and I think the guys are pleased with the record, but I think to a man we really haven’t been at our best yet and haven’t put together our game like we think we can or expect we will,” Bylsma said Monday. “There are areas we know we have to improve on if we want to be a good team. We have a long way to go.”
The Penguins, according to Fleury, talked from the start of camp about the necessity of being ready to play nightly. They’ve looked flat and unprepared only once, a 3-0 loss at home to Phoenix on Oct. 7, but they’ve won five in a row since.
“It’s something we heard a lot about coming to training camp, coming into the beginning of the season,” said Fleury, who is making a strong push to be included on Canada’s Olympic team. “We knew that every night was going to be a tough night and teams would want to beat us, so we’ve been ready and played good hockey.”
Bylsma did exactly what Steelers coach Mike Tomlin did by eliminating all talk of the championship season once training camp began – and, for the Penguins, that was only three months to the day after they beat Detroit 2-1 in Game 7.
The shift in focus appears to be working. The Penguins are playing confidently but appear to be lacking the attitude they can beat teams simply on talent.
“I’m happy,” Malkin said. “The team is playing great.”
Bill Guerin, at 38 their oldest player, likes how the Penguins are playing with the edge and desire of a team that’s yet to win a championship rather than one that’s trying to repeat.
He also likes how new additions Jay McKee and Mike Rupp have smoothly made the transition from other systems.
“I think when things are going well, that’s the time to push harder,” Guerin said. “I think Dan has a good handle on what we need to do to stay focused each and every night. It hasn’t been a grind yet, there are a lot of peaks and valleys during the season. Right now, we have to make sure we’re bearing down and riding the wave.”
Malkin (three goals, 10 points) and Crosby (four goals, seven points) aren’t slumping, but neither has matched the eruptive start by Washington’s Alex Ovechkin (nine goals, 16 points in eight games). Crosby went into Monday’s games 34th in scoring and Malkin, last year’s scoring champion, was 14th.
However, the Capitals recently went 0-2-2 during a four-game stretch; the Penguins have lost only four regular-season games in regulation in eight months. They play again Tuesday night, meeting St. Louis in the second of five consecutive home games.
“If we were 7-1 and our team thought we were playing well and our team was acting that way, I would be concerned,” Bylsma said. “We know we have to get better. Some of the details we want to get in our game, we’re not as sharp as we want to be. We’ve talked about paying attention to those details.”
The power play, for example, ranks 21st. Chris Kunitz, despite playing on Crosby’s line, has one goal in 37 games. Ruslan Fedotenko has scored only once. Malkin is even in plus-minus. Faceoffs can be dicey at times.
It’s also a long way to March, and the Penguins were reminded last season that a good start doesn’t guarantee a season will go smoothly. A year ago, they were 11-4-2 after 17 games but, by mid-February, were playing so miserably with a 27-25-5 record that former coach Michel Therrien was fired and Bylsma took over.
“It’s not something where you ever really get caught looking ahead to March. You can’t afford to and I don’t think anybody does,” Crosby said. “We’re not going to start doing that now. We’ve had success, and that’s great, but nothing’s automatic and things can turn as quickly as they’ve been going great. We’ve got to keep that in mind and stay on task. It would not be a smart move for us to be looking ahead.”