PITTSBURGH | The Penguins are undefeated since signing Mark Eaton signed and plugging him into their lineup. Nine in a row, and the veteran defenseman has been part of seven of them.
“We’re finding a lot of different ways to win: We’ve won some 7-6 games, we’ve won a 2-1 game,” Eaton said. “For us it was all about shoring things up defensively and creating offense without sacrificing defense. Not playing risky and just getting to what’s always made us successful: managing the puck right and getting pucks deep behind their D and letting our world-class forwards go to work.”
What’s perhaps most impressive about Pittsburgh’s streak is that it has come mostly without one of those world-class forwards. Evgeni Malkin has missed the past five games with what the team is calling an upper-body injury, though not a concussion.
“Obviously MVP of the league last year. But we know who’s over there; they got a lot of good players, and they’ve been playing well,” Washington Capitals coach Adam Oates said Tuesday. “They’re a Cup champion of a couple years ago; they’re always one of the favorites. They’re one of the upper-echelon teams in the league.”
The Penguins sure look like it lately. They haven’t lost since the calendar turned to March, outscoring opponents 38-22 during that stretch.
“We’ve had a couple close ones,” said left wing Chris Kunitz, who has nine goals and eight assists in the past nine games. “They’ve all had a different story to it but we’re just trying to focus on how we play the game and try to make sure that we do that at a higher, consistent level and we know we’ll be a better team for that.”
Captain Sidney Crosby has four goals and 13 assists during the streak. Pascal Dupuis has seven goals and two assists. Goaltenders Marc-Andre Fleury (5-0-0) and Tomas Vokoun (4-0-0) have combined for a 2.42 goals-against average and .912 save percentage.
“It’s been a different guy every night, obviously we’ve played pretty good hockey but there are times kind of in there that we didn’t play well,” Crosby said. “Whether it was Flower or last game Vokey played great for us, [Brandon Sutter] getting two big goals in the comeback against Boston. There’s different things that happen throughout so we’re just getting big plays and we need to continue to do that. Our depth is a strength of our team and if we want to have success we need that.”
Players pointed to improved defense as a major difference. That’s crucial especially without Malkin.
“We want to play a good, defensive game, help out our goaltenders, not leave them out there on two-on-one rushes, three-on-twos, let them score goals that they’re given so many odd-man chances against,” Kunitz said. “So we want to be able to go out and just play a good game. That’s being good structurally in the defensive zone and then going out in the offensive zone and hanging onto the puck.”
When the Penguins are fundamentally sound all 200 feet, they’re hard to beat. But the Caps didn’t need the streak to discover that.
“They like to control the puck. When they control the puck, it’s hard to get it back,” forward Matt Hendricks said.
It helps to have skilled players around to handle the puck.
“Everybody knows Crosby, Malkin two best players in the league,” Washington captain Alex Ovechkin said. “We have to be careful with both of them. But Malkin [won’t] play, he get hurt we just have to get on top of Crosby right away. Don’t give him any space to handle the puck and create some plays.”
Caps right wing Troy Brouwer said earlier in the season that what makes the Penguins so good is that their best players are also their hardest-working players.
“That’s why they are the best players in the world,” Eaton said. “They have the most God-given talent, but they also work harder than anybody else, on and off the ice. It’s amazing. … You see their work ethic and what they do and it trickles down through everybody else.”
Without Malkin, the Penguins haven’t stumbled. Instead they’ve found different ways to keep the streak alive. They’ve surged to the top of the Eastern Conference along the way and developed some versatility that could help come playoff time.
“You want to win a game however it’s going to happen,” Kunitz said. “If you have to play better defense, if we need to score goals, we’ll hopefully be able to turn that switch and be able to score goals.”