The Penguins rack up points against NHL scrimmage teams while they await tougher testing

PITTSBURGH – If they end up extending the current longest postseason streak in the NHL, the Penguins may look back fondly on this third week of January.

They haven’t been perfect the past few days.

However, they amassed five of six available points from three games against two teams that are unlikely to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The final two points, a 4-1 win over the Senators, came during the Penguins’ cleanest performance since before the Christmas break.

So, basically, the penguins were as close to Good Friday Night as they were in a month.

They were far better against the squabbling Senators than they were during Wednesday’s overtime loss in Ottawa and just a few notches above an uncomfortable overtime win over the lowly Ducks at home Monday night.

“It’s going to be a tough game,” said Jason Zucker, whose 13th goal Friday night was his third in as many games. “We have to make sure we do the right things in practice and get the rest as much as possible and try to get those points at the moment. They are very important.”

Two of the Penguins’ next three games – at the Devils on Sunday afternoon and at the Capitals on Thursday night – will take on the clubs above them in the Capital Division/Eastern Conference standings. Among them is a home game on Tuesday against the Panthers, who were just two points behind the Penguins going into games played on Friday.

If their schedule is eased against potential non-playoff opponents this week, it is sure to get tougher before the break.

In fact, picking up the points they got from the Ducks and Senators was hugely important to the Penguins, who hold their last wild card slot in the east.

Against the Senators on Friday, the Penguins faced an early challenge in the third period in the form of a Senators power play. Marcus Peterson – the Penguins’ undisputed best defender this season and one of their most valuable players – was taking a penalty kick.

Unlike many calls made against the Ottawa Penguins on Wednesday night, this one against Pettersson was fairly distributed by the officials on the ice. It wasn’t an irresponsible play by Peterson, just a hockey game gone wrong.

However, with a fatal penalty as Peterson in the penalty area, the Penguins would hang on to a two-goal lead. They were defending against a Senators power play that put four pucks across the goal line in the previous game.

Killing the Penguins to feature the Senators was surgical. Forwards like Teddy Plowger expertly disrupt the timing while defenders like Brian Dumoulin close the gaps with a protruding stick.

Let’s call it a Warholian artwork for a penalty kill, if such a thing can even exist. Cans of Campbell’s Soup, sure.

“The players who crossed the boards to be a part of (the penalty kick) did a great job,” said coach Mike Sullivan. “We have lumps. We get clearance. We have pressure. They have almost no time to set up, and when that happens it can be a serious death sentence.”

Had this successful kill been an ugly kick, though, it would still have been a pretty sweet thing for penguins. They needed an occasion from which they could rise, and raised their bar at a crucial moment.

It was as you would expect from good clubs.

The penguins still think they are such a club. They’ll need more than victories over the ducks and senators to impress the others, but at least the penguins are starting to appear more like themselves.

Jeff Petrie returned to anchor a defense corps that had dropped several key contributors in recent weeks and was once again without Chris Letang and Jan Rota on Friday night. Petrie led all Penguins with over 25 minutes, and his heading shot through the middle helped set up Rijkaard Raquel’s opening goal of the first period.

“When we move it around and they spread out, (Jake Guentzel) is the guy in that aisle,” Petrie said of his shot, which was deflected into the openings area by Guentzel before Raquel pushed the rebound past goalkeeper Cam Talbot. .

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

Ultimately, given a bad salary cap that will make trades difficult (but not impossible) for general manager Ron Heckstall, the Penguins may only go as far as it takes for their goal. To that end, the return of Tristan Jarry against the Senators provided important cause for encouragement.

Gary was sharp from a puck drop Friday night, deflecting several close-range shots from the Senators. He finished with 46 saves, including all 21 shots faced in the final period.

Gary has not played since January 2, when he was injured in the Winter Classic at Fenway Park. The Penguins conceded at least three goals in five of the seven games that Gary missed while recovering from a lower body ailment.

“I had plenty of time to rest,” my neighbor joked, jokingly responding to the question of whether such a heavy load of bullets had left him tired after his return outing.

The rest is something the Penguins won’t have much of between now and the NHL All-Star break in early February. If they can continue to find a way to rack up points every now and then, they’ll surely be better prepared not to rest when the postseason opens in a few months.

“We have to get excited knowing this break is coming,” Zucker said, “and hopefully we can get as many points as possible.”

(Image: Jason Zucker celebrating his goal with Marcus Peterson: Charles LeClair/USA Today)


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