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Better Late Than Never: Penguins Respond, Finally Reveal Character?



Pittsburgh Penguins, Erik Karlsson, Michael Bunting

It would be impossible to say with certainty, but the crucible of facing elimination and perhaps seismic-level offseason changes has finally revealed the character of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

They are just three points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Rickard Rakell spoke postgame Tuesday. His voice is usually soft, but this time, it carried a sound of satisfied exhaustion after a shocking comeback win over the New Jersey Devils, 6-3.

Of course, they have recently blown multi-goal third period leads, including one to the awful Columbus Blue Jackets, but sketchy defense and a struggle to engage consistently are just part of their internal makeup.

Also, this is the same team that raced to a 4-0 lead over the Stanley Cup favorite Colorado Avalanche before settling for a point, controlled the Eastern Conference contender Carolina Hurricanes, took it to the Presidents’ Trophy leading New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, and rallied for a “gutsy” win over the speedy New Jersey on Tuesday.

The Penguins have points in six straight games, including four wins.

Hey, better late than never?

For everyone who asks, “Where has this team been?!” Rest assured, they’re asking themselves the same question, but they also can’t wait around for the answer. Time is running short. They long ago gave away their margin for error, and any loss in the coming games against the Washington Capitals, Detroit Red Wings, or New York Islanders could be the figurative (or literal) end of their playoff hopes.

However, facing the end seems to have been the catalyst for several changes.

The Penguins lineup is littered with young players making real contributions, such as Jack St. Ivany, Valtteri Puustinen, Drew O’Connor, and P.O Joseph.

Joseph and O’Connor have been especially good over the last few games.

There’s no question there was a little change in energy with those players, combined with Jonathan Gruden and Sam Poulin in the room for a week. Gruden and Poulin didn’t stick, but they added to the fresh winds blowing through the Penguins’ room. Gruden set himself up well for a longer run next season.

When the Penguins need goals, they’re playing hard in the corners and going to the net.

Erik Karlsson was supremely good, though a little bit overshadowed on Tuesday. His work getting out of the zone and skating with the puck was vintage Karlsson. He’s doing more — and more — Karlsson-type things. His ability to change directions and propel forward is otherworldly.

Bryan Rust has 14 points in his last 11 games, scoring eight goals. He has three straight two-point games and a six-game scoring streak.

Alex Nedeljkovic has ranged from stellar to marvelous, starting six straight games, including both ends of a back-to-back against the New York Rangers and New Jersey. The pressure of the situation has elevated his game. That will not be forgotten or overlooked this summer, as he will be an unrestricted free agent.

Nedeljkovic has seized the opportunity and done as much as Sidney Crosby in the team’s six-game points streak.

Crosby has been dominant. The captain has 15 points (6-9-15) in his last six games.

Overall, the team has finally shown the urgency necessary to be successful. They’ve dressed for all 75 games this season, but it would be a bald-faced lie to say they were present or engaged for enough of them.

Even when they believed their season to be hanging by a thread, it seemed the beeps of the coming moving vans could be heard over the dispirited voices in the locker room.

It appeared to be a lost season and quite possibly the fulcrum for cataclysmic change.

Those major changes may still be necessary. The odds posit the Pittsburgh Penguins will again watch the playoffs on television, but with no more chances left, their competition failed to end their season.

The Penguins have responded, and this stretch has finally revealed character.


The Penguins’ odds of making the Stanley Cup playoffs have spiked from 1.8% one week ago to 15.9% today, according to

Of course, the Penguins are getting far more help than they deserve. The Philadelphia Flyers not only look like pumpkins, but midnight is striking on their Cinderella season, returning them to the pumpkins they were supposed to be. Losses and an angry coach are piling on.

The Capitals’ hot streak is over, and their minus-35 goal differential screams bad team.

The young, untested Detroit Red Wings faceplanted without captain Dylan Larkin and have not regained their stride since he returned to the lineup two weeks ago. Their downward spiral in the standings opened the door for everyone else, and now they must contend with the old lion who is starting to roar.

The Penguins.

The Penguins might run out of gas before the finish line, as their compressed schedule is a brutal gauntlet of travel and quality opponents. They might revert to their inconsistent, mistake-filled ways.

Or the indomitable Crosby might just carry them to the end. They face the New York Islanders on April 17, the regular season finale. That might become a battle for a playoff spot or a must-win game for the Penguins to claim it.

They’ve put themselves in a position to catch the teams they’ve trailed for months.

Finally, we’re getting a glimpse of the potential and character of the Penguins.

Better late than never.