The roller coaster ride continues when the Pittsburgh Penguins reach the halfway point of their season, their 41st game, Friday night when the Winnipeg Jets visit PPG Paints Arena.
They will close out a first half that has been full of peaks and valleys, but winger Bryan Rust notes it’s certainly better to be riding one of those peaks now. The Penguins have a seven-game winning streak and have won nine of 10.
“It’s definitely a little bit better,” winger Bryan Rust said. “I think that’s just how the NHL season goes. There’s going to be times when things are going good and you’re feeling it, and there’s going to be times when you’re gripping (the stick) and things aren’t going your way and you’ve got to come together a little bit more. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of rebounding, taking advantage of the good and trying to build, and work through those bad things.”
In November, things looked bleak. The Penguins even dropped to last in the Eastern Conference. Now look at them, one point behind the first-place Washington Capitals in the Metropolitan Division.
“First, we’re getting some really good goaltending,” forward Matt Cullen said. “I think our game has just been gradually coming. Guys are kind of finding their comfort zone as far as roles and fits and putting pucks in the net. It’s been a good stretch for us. Everyone’s been chipping in.
“It’s a long season. It’s a group that’s been through a lot for the most part. It’s easy to get caught up in the small picture. I think that’s where leadership comes in as far as a group that’s been through it and understands what it takes over the course of the 82 games, trusting that we’d find our game and get to where we need to be. We find ourselves getting closer and closer to where we need to be.”
With 50 points in 40 games, the Penguins are on pace for 103 points. They had 100 last season.
“We are getting closer to everyone being on the same page and everyone going, and I think that’s our goal as the season builds and we move forward … and build a lot of chemistry,” Rust said.
Team captain Sidney Crosby likes the basics of what the Penguins are doing lately.
“Were playing solid,” he said. “We’re not making a ton of mistakes, and when we do make mistakes we’re getting some big plays (to nullify them).”
At the morning skate, Juuso Riikola looked like the odd man out on defense, with Jamie Oleksiak’s participation in the morning skate indicating he might draw back in.
Coach Mike Sullivan all but confirmed as much, and noted that Oleksiak, aka Big Rig, is a player suited to match up with a club with size such as Winnipeg.
“Jamie’s a guy that brings a lot of size and grit to our blue line,” Sullivan said.
In addition, Sullivan said defenseman Justin Schultz, recuperating from a broken leg, is sitting in on team meetings and is expected to begin skating soon.
Matt Murray is expected to start in goal for a second straight game.
The lines at the skate (no change):
Jake Guentzel-Sidney Crosby-Bryan Rust
Dominik Simon-Evgeni Malkin-Patric Hornqvist
Tanner Pearson-Derick Brassard-Phil Kessel
Riley Sheahan-Matt Cullen—Zach Aston-Reese
Brian Dumoulin-Kris Letang
Jamie Oleksiak-Olli Maatta
Marcus Pettersson-Jack Johnson