The Pittsburgh Penguins are a veteran group, so their psyches have been tempered to the triumphs and traumas of life in the National Hockey League.
They understand that slumps and hot streaks are integral parts of the game and that reacting too strongly to either can be counterproductive.
And so it is that the Penguins, who have won three games in a row for the first time this season, are wary of being too emotionally invested in that run of success as they prepare to face Calgary Wednesday at 7:08 p.m. at PPG Paints Arena.
“We’re a team that tries not to be too high or too low,” Brian Dumoulin said, adding, “obviously, (the locker-room mood) is pretty great coming off the road trip.”
That’s understandable, since a week ago, the Penguins were mired in a 2-7-2 slump after absorbing a 5-2 loss to Toronto that dropped them onto the dark side of .500.
But that was before they embarked on the trip that took them to Minnesota, Winnipeg, and Chicago. A trip that earned them six points and launched them back into contention for an Eastern Conference playoff berth.
Now, with a bit more than three-quarters of the regular season remaining, they could have returned from the trip with nothing more than a little leftover meal money and still not been doomed to sit out the postseason, but piling up three victories in a row had to boost their collective confidence.
And while a significant hiccup during their 5-3 win against the Blackhawks Sunday, when the Penguins surrendered a 3-0 lead before Sidney Crosby scored the game-winner at 16:46 of the third period, could have been a bit deflating, the Penguins ultimately were able to overcome that mostly self-inflicted spasm of adversity.
“Anytime you can go on a road trip and go 3-for-3, it’s a positive,” Jeff Petry said. “Obviously, the Chicago game wasn’t the ideal way to get it done, but big-picture, winning three games on a road trip is good.”
So the Pittsburgh Penguins are healthy — backup goalie Casey DeSmith was the only player who sat out practice Tuesday — and playing as well as they have since the early days of the season.
But there is at least one very good reason for the Penguins to refrain from getting too caught up in their recent surge back into contention for a spot in the postseason.
The Flames have beaten them in each of their past three meetings, including a 4-1 victory at the Scotiabank Saddledome Oct. 25.
Calgary has an aggregate scoring advantage of 10-2 in those games, and two of them weren’t even as competitive as that lopsided stat suggests. (The exception being a 2-1 shootout victory for the Flames last Nov. 29 in Calgary.)
Although the Flames have some high-end talent, their success is rooted more in good depth.
“They have a really balanced team,” Dumoulin said. “There are no really glaring holes.”
There certainly isn’t one in goal, especially when Calgary is facing the Penguins. Jacob Markstrom has stopped 98 of the 100 shots he’s faced during the past three Penguins-Flames games, including a 45-save performance during a 4-0 victory at PPG Paints Arena Oct. 28, 2021.
If he had that kind of success against the rest of the league, Markstrom wouldn’t just win the Vezina Trophy, it would be renamed after him.
It appears, however, that his goaltending partner, Dan Vladar, will get the start tonight. Vladar was the first goalie off the ice at the Flames’ game-day skate.
Markstrom and Vladar benefit from a commitment to team defense that limits opponents to an average of 27.9 shots per game, the fourth-lowest figure in the league, and stems from a structured, relentless style that reflects the way Darryl Sutter played and now coaches.
“They play hard,” Jake Guentzel said. “They defend hard.”
And they do the same at the other end of the ice.
“They’re a team that’s heavy on the forecheck and plays that grind-you-down game,” Petry said. “When we’re careless with the puck, we’re going to spend a lot of time in the (defensive) zone. For us, it’s a matter of limiting those transitions because they have some skill that will carry the puck in, but a lot of times they’re dumping it in and playing that grind game.”
The Pittsburgh Penguins know — as well, or better than most — how efficient and effective Calgary can be when it’s on its game. They also appreciate that, regardless of how it turns out, this will be just one piece of the 82-game mosaic that is the 2022-23 season.
“There’s still a lot of games left in the season,” Guentzel said. “We can’t get too high or too low.”