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Penguins’ Optimism Soaring; ‘We’re Right in This Thing’



Pittsburgh Penguins game analysis, Drew O'Connor, Evgeni Malkin

CRANBERRY — The Pittsburgh Penguins’ shootout loss in Columbus last Saturday was not their only excruciating defeat in 2023-24.

Anyone remember, say, Oct. 30, when Anaheim’s Mason McTavish finished serving a tripping penalty that had contributed to the Penguins having a 5-on-3 power play for 1:49, then beat Tristan Jarry on a shorthanded breakaway with 12.8 seconds left in regulation to give the Ducks a 4-3 victory at PPG Paints Arena?

Outdoing that one wouldn’t be easy.

But even though the Penguins’ 4-3 setback at Nationwide Arena couldn’t quite match what happened against Anaheim five months earlier, it was one of their most gut-wrenching losses of the season.

Hey, when you’re supposed to be battling for your playoff life and you have a 3-1 lead midway through the third period against one of the worst teams in the NHL, losing really shouldn’t be an option.

Maybe not, but the Penguins sped down that path to despair, anyway.

It was a potentially lethal blow to their prospects of getting back into postseason play, and an ominous start to a four-game road trip that figured to get considerably more challenging.

Predictably, things were pretty glum in the Penguins’ locker room afterward.

“Obviously, we were frustrated with that game,” defenseman Jack St. Ivany said after an optional practice Friday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. “You want to close those games out. To give up that (lead) and lose is pretty deflating.”

While it was the kind of defeat that could have effectively snuffed their longshot chances of sneaking into the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Penguins managed to dodge such a dire fate.

If anything, what happened in Columbus that night seems to have been the catalyst for road victories over the New York Rangers, New Jersey and Washington.

“We’ve been regrouping pretty good since then,” winger Emil Bemstrom said.

The Penguins still don’t own a playoff berth — they’re two points out of third place in the Metropolitan Division and the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference — but they have six games to change that. Along with a measure of hope, even optimism, that wasn’t present when this week began.

“You can just tell in the locker room,” defenseman Ryan Shea said. “Everyone’s having a lot more fun. The energy’s up, and I don’t know why it wouldn’t be. We’re right in this thing.”

That’s not an isolated opinion.

“You can feel the energy in the room right now,” Bemstrom said. “We’ve been playing with confidence. Everyone. It’s just positivity all around the team right now.”

Fact is, confidence seems to be spreading faster than whatever ailment it is that’s been passing through the Pittsburgh Penguins’ room in recent days. Precisely what triggered the turnaround isn’t clear, although getting a goal 18 seconds into their 5-2 victory at Madison Square Garden Monday in their first game after the loss in Columbus surely didn’t hurt.

“Coming out with a hot start like that is really exciting,” St. Ivany said.

But a good first shift against the Rangers doesn’t explain why the Penguins began playing with commitment and focus that had been absent for much of the season. However, the example set by some of their most prominent players might.

“Watching certain guys put on certain performances is contagious,” St. Ivany said. “Seeing (goalie Alex) Nedeljkovic battle every single night, put everything on the line, that’s contagious to the room. Seeing guys like Sid (Crosby) leave it all out there, and even (Evgeni Malkin) in the locker room, being vocal, it’s really contagious, gets you going.”

Although the Penguins are one of the NHL’s hottest teams, going 5-0-2 in their past seven games, they’ll face a major challenge to their surge Saturday afternoon, when Tampa Bay visits PPG Paints Arena.

The Lightning are 10-2-1 in their past 13 games and have a chokehold on the first wild card in the East, although they still could overtake Toronto for third place in the Atlantic Division.

Tampa Bay has scored 270 goals, fourth-most in the league, courtesy of an attack headlined by right winger Nikita Kucherov, who leads the NHL with 133 points.

“They’re a very high-octane offense,” Shea said. “They have a couple of big guys who like to get on the scoresheet.”

Tampa Bay obviously could short-circuit the Penguins’ hot streak. Conversely, beating such an accomplished opponent might accelerate the Pittsburgh Penguins’ momentum going into a trip to Toronto Monday.

They still face a steep climb to reach the playoffs, but don’t seem to find that especially daunting.

“We’re playing desperate hockey, and that’s the most fun hockey,” St. Ivany said. “This time of year is why you play the game.”