Penguins rack up points against NHL’s scuffling teams as tougher tests await

PITTSBURGH — If they end up extending the NHL‘s longest current postseason streak, the penguins might look back fondly on this third week of January.

They weren’t perfect over the past few days.

However, they claimed five of six available points from three games against a couple of teams unlikely to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs. The last couple of points, the result of a 4-1 win over the senatorscame during the Penguins’ cleanest performance since before the Christmas break.

So, basically, the Penguins were about as good Friday night as they have been in a month.

They were a lot better against the scuffling Senators than during an overtime loss Wednesday in Ottawa and quite a few notches above an uneasy overtime win over the lowly ducks at home Monday night.

“There’s going to be a grind,” said Jason Sugar, whose 13th goal Friday night was his third in as many games. “We’ve got to make sure we’re doing the right things practice-wise and getting the rest as much as we can and trying to get these points right now. They’re very important.”

Two of the Penguins’ next three games — at the devils on Sunday afternoon and at the Capitals on Thursday night — are against clubs ahead of them in the Metropolitan Division/Eastern Conference standings. Sandwiched in between is a home game Tuesday against the Pantherswho were only a couple of points behind the Penguins before games were played Friday.

If their schedule softened against likely non-playoff opponents this week, it certainly increases in difficulty before the break.

Indeed, taking the points they did from the Ducks and Senators mattered a lot for the Penguins, who hold the East’s final wild-card slot.

Against the Senators on Friday, the Penguins faced an early third-period challenge in the form of a Senators power play. Marcus Pettersson — inarguably the Penguins’ best defenseman this season and indisputably one of their most valuable players — was serving a hooking penalty.

Unlike many of the calls that went against the Penguins in Ottawa on Wednesday night, this one against Pettersson was fairly doled out by on-ice officials. It wasn’t an irresponsible play by Pettersson, just a hockey play gone wrong.

Still, with a valuable penalty killer such as Pettersson in the box, the Penguins were clinging to a two-goal lead. And they were defending against a Senators power play that had put four pucks across the goal line the previous game.

The Penguins’ killing of the Senators’ advantage was surgical. Forwards such as Teddy Blueger expertly disrupted timing while defensemen such as Brian Dumoulin closed off gaps with standout stick work.

Let’s call it a Warholian work of art of a penalty kill, if such a thing can exist. Campbell’s Soup can stuff, to be sure.

“The guys going over the boards to be part of (the penalty kill) did a great job,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “We got blocks. We got clears. We got pressures. They had almost no time to set up, and when that’s happening, we can be a dangerous penalty kill.”

Had that successful penalty kill been ugly, though, it still would have been a thing of beauty for these Penguins. They needed an occasion to which they could rise, and they elevated their performance in a crucial moment.

It was just as should be expected of good clubs.

The Penguins still believe themselves to be such a club. They’ll need more than wins over the Ducks and Senators to convince others, but at least the Penguins are starting to look more like themselves.

Jeff Petry returned to anchor a defense corps that’s been down several key contributors in recent weeks and was again without Kris Letang other Jan Rutta on Friday night. Petry led all Penguins with 25-plus minutes, and his heads-up shot through the middle helped set up Rickard Rackell‘s opening goal in the first period.

“When we move it around and they’re spread out, (Jake Guentzel) is the guy in that lane,” Petry said of his shot, which was deflected in the slot area by Guentzel before Rakell pushed the rebound past Senators goalie Cam Talbot.

“I saw him there alone. I know he’s got a good stick there. I’m just trying to put it there and let those guys get going.”

Ultimately, given a dire salary-cap situation that will make trades tough (but not impossible) to make for general manager Ron Hextall, the Penguins might go only so far as their goaltending takes them. to that end Tristan Jarry‘s return against the Senators provided significant reason for encouragement.

Jarry was sharp from the drop of the puck Friday night, and he turned aside several point-blank shots from the Senators. He finished with 44 saves, including all 21 shots he faced in the final period.

Jarry had not played since Jan. 2, when he was injured in the Winter Classic at Fenway Park. The Penguins had surrendered at least three goals in five of seven games that Jarry missed during his recovery from a lower-body ailment.

“I had plenty of time to rest,” Jarry said, jokingly responding to a question as to whether such a heavy shot load left him tired after his return outing.

Rest is something the Penguins won’t have much of between now and the NHL All-Star break in early February. If they can keep finding a way to rack up points between now and then, they’ll surely be set up better to not be resting when the postseason opens in a few months.

“We’ve got to grind knowing we’ve got this break coming up,” Zucker said, “and hopefully we can get as many points as we can going into it.”

(Photo of Jason Zucker celebrating his goal with Marcus Pettersson: Charles LeClaire / USA Today)

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