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‘Like, Oh (Crap)’: Crazy Metro Shocks Penguins Into Action



New York Rangers, Igor Shesterkin's tough night

Don’t let anyone try to tell you that the Pittsburgh Penguins, Carolina Hurricanes or New York Rangers are unbeatable.

It simply isn’t true.

But if what you hear is that those teams only seem to lose when they’re playing each other, well, that isn’t much of a stretch.

Consider that the Penguins’ 3-2 victory against the Rangers Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena snapped New York’s seven-game winning streak.

Or that the Penguins’ 3-2 loss to the Hurricanes at PNC Arena two days earlier was their first defeat in eight games.

Or that Carolina … well, uh, the Hurricanes have gone 12 games without losing in regulation, so maybe they actually are unbeatable.

That notion should get a good test Thursday, when Carolina visits PPG Paints Arena at 7:08 p.m.

And while the Penguins — who are third in the Metropolitan Division, two points behind suddenly plummeting New Jersey — are focused on moving up in the standings, they can’t afford to ignore a couple of revitalized clubs, the New York Islanders and Washington, that are hovering four points behind them.

“We’re playing in a good division,” Mike Sullivan said. “There’s a lot of good teams, and everybody wins. That’s what it seems like, anyway.”

Indeed, there are six teams bunched within eight points, and all but the Devils — who are in a 0-5-1 freefall after a stunningly strong start — collecting points on a regular basis. The exact order in the standings in which they are found changes almost daily, and the Penguins acknowledge they are keeping track of all that movement.

“I’m watching it every day,” Kris Letang said. “That’s how tight it is. You see how we created a (negative) gap with that losing streak we had earlier this year and you’re like, ‘Oh (crap), we have to get going.’ You don’t want to dig yourself too deep (of a hole), because it’s too tough of a division, it’s too tough of a league, to come back.”

The rematch with Carolina will be the Penguins’ third game in a stretch during which they will face Metro opponents in five of six. And while Marcus Pettersson noted the importance of games outside the division, he allowed that “Especially these games are big against divisional rivals.”

The Pittsburgh Penguins have fared well in those through the first two-plus months of the season, going 5-1-1, with the only blemishes on that record coming against Carolina.

For the first 30 or so minutes against the Rangers, the Penguins appeared to be headed for another, but a big hit by Rickard Rakell on Rangers center Filip Chytil, a strong shift by Evgeni Malkin’s line and a pair of power-play goals less than 5 1/2 minutes apart altered the course of the game.

“It’s a big thing for us to be able to turn a game like that around,” Pettersson said. “It’s not always that easy, in a game, to turn it around.”

The importance of elevating their game the way the Pittsburgh Penguins did is difficult to overstate. Had they lost in regulation, as seemed likely for much of the evening, they would have been three points behind the Rangers instead of one ahead of them, and would hold a precarious two-point lead over the Islanders and Capitals.

“We have a tight division and every point matters, whether it’s now or whether it’s in March and April,” Tristan Jarry said. “These points all count, and it’s nice to get them early.”

The next opportunity to get a couple more comes Thursday, and Sullivan suggested it is imperative that his team concentrate on the challenge immediately before it and not dwell on whatever big-picture implications the outcome will have.

“We’re trying to establish ourselves, first and foremost, as a playoff team, and the best way to do that, from my experience, is you just stay in the moment,” he said. “You focus on that one game in front of you.”

Even while keeping up with so much that is happening elsewhere.