OUT OF THE GATES: December to remember

When the 2009-10 schedule was released, this stretch leading up to the holiday break stuck out to me as a time where the Penguins would prove themselves.

They haven’t disappointed.

After dropping back to back home games against Chicago and Carolina, the Penguins have strung together five straight wins. Most recently they took care of Philadelphia — which is always difficult given the rivalry — in a home and home series and then traveled to Buffalo and won in a shootout, 2-1.

In one week the Penguins have proven they are every bit as good as last year, if not better. And with games against New Jersey tonight and Ottawa on Wednesday, the Penguins can enter the three-day holiday break playing their strongest hockey of the year.

What’s scary is Pittsburgh has shown they still have a lot of improving to do.

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Lineup changes both ways against Sabres

Clearly, Philadelphia’s struggling performances don’t deter fans from watching.

Pittsburgh Penguins (24-10-1, 49 pts.) vs. Buffalo Sabres (21-10-2, 44 pts.)

At least not in Pittsburgh.

Thursday night’s game at the Wachovia Center was the second highest rated regular season broadcast in team history with a 10.95, just behind Mario Lemieux’s return from retirement on Dec. 27, 2000 (15.9). And while tonight’s game at Buffalo won’t have the same feel, it is just as important since Sabres have become one of the surprise teams this season.

Buffalo currently leads the Northeast Division with 44 points and could challenge for home-ice advantage come season’s end.

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Fleury stands tall, Pens win in OT

After breezing through a 6-1 shellacking of the Philadelphia Flyers Tuesday night, Marc-Andre Fleury must have known things would be far different at the Wachovia Center.

Penguins 3 — Flyers 2

One thing’s for sure, his focus traveled with him to Philly.

Fleury stopped 31 of 33 shots as well as both of Philadelphia’s shootout attempts as the Pittsburgh Penguins won, 3-2, in a two-round shootout. Key saves in each period helped keep the Flyers from mounting anything more than a one-goal lead, allowing Kris Letang and Sidney Crosby to net each of their attempts in the shootout for the win.

“A shootout always starts with your goalie — you need the saves in there to give yourselves a chance to win,” Crosby said. “As a shooter you’re much more confident when you’re shootin’ to win instead of playin’ catch up. There’s not as much pressure. That really starts with Flower. He provided that cushion for our shooters to really go for it.”

It was just another stellar performance in net for Fleury, who is now 9-1-1 in his last 11 games with a goals against average of 1.88 and a save percentage well of .925.

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Talbot sits for physical play

After what happened in the first round of last year’s Eastern Conference playoffs, it’s a little different seeing Craig Adams fighting Daniel Carcillo and not Max Talbot.

Pittsburgh Penguins (23-10-1, 47 pts.) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (15-16-1, 31 pts.)

However, coach Dan Bylsma had a decision to make and decided to sit Talbot for Eric Godard and his physical style of play. The gamble of sitting out one of the most popular players in the locker room paid off as the Penguins won, 6-1.

There undoubtedly were other candidates, but Talbot has struggled to find a groove since returning to the lineup from shoulder surgery. Talbot has appeared in 12 games since coming back from injury, registering just one goal and two assists.

“I don’t think it’s fair to assume he’s gonna be at the level that he was,” Bylsma said. “I don’t know the number of games that he’s played totally. Speaking from similar circumstances — other players, my career — it’s difficult getting set in in the middle of the season.”

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Rant: Fighting is good for hockey

I couldn’t have been happier today.

The Penguins blew out the Philadelphia Flyers, 6-1, in embarrassing fashion Tuesday. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s the excitement and anticipation for the rematch Thursday. However, my elation died almost instantaneously after reading Ron Cook’s column in today’s (Wendesday’s) Post-Gazette.

It’s another writer with his own take on the idea of fighting in hockey — something we’ve heard before. In a nutshell, his point is that it’s a shame Dan Bylsma had to sit Max Talbot for Eric Godard, because Godard’s presence was in a response to the type of game Philadelphia likes to play: rough and physical with your occasional fight.

I understand his point and, honestly, by the third fight in 16 seconds I was thinking we need to get back to playing hockey. But if you take fighting out of hockey the result will be far worse.

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Pens bully back, beat Flyers

It’s hard to imagine a more positive result for the Penguins than their 6-1 beatdown of the Philadelphia Flyers Tuesday night.

Flyers 1 — Penguins 6

Pittsburgh’s struggling power play looked stellar, while the penalty killing unit put two goals on the board. The Penguins controlled play from start to finish, visibly frustrating the Flyers, and several of Pittsburgh’s top goal scorers got on the board.

More importantly,  the Penguins earned another two points against a division rival and moved back in to first place in the Atlantic Division. And for at least a few hours, moved back in to first place in the Eastern Conference as well.

And all the while they matched Philadelphia’s intensity, proving that physicality isn’t lacking in Pittsburgh.

“I loved the response from our team,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “…I loved the fact our guys hung in there, answered the bell. It’s not a surprise with the rivalry, the two teams and the situation both teams are in. It felt close to a playoff intensity. There was a lot of intensity, a lot of jam in that first period.”

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Not your typical Flyers

Since the 1994-95 season, the Philadelphia Flyers have missed the playoffs just once. In this decade they’ve won at least 40 games a season seven times.

Philadelphia Flyers (15-15-1, 31 pts.) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (22-10-1, 45 pts.)

So when Philadelphia visits Mellon Arena tonight for the first of back-to-back games against the Penguins, it might have a little bit different of a feel, considering the Flyers are currently tied at the bottom of the Atlantic Division out of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference.

To summarize the recent Flyers’ free fall, John Stevens was fired on Dec. 4 with a record of 13-11-1 and the Flyers have gone 2-4-0 under new coach Peter Laviolette. Starting goaltender Ray Emery underwent surgery Wednesday to repair a torn muscle in his lower abdomen and will be out of the lineup for six weeks — an injury the organization was aware of but tried and failed at rehabilitating, leading to his current state.

Defenseman Braydon Coburn is currently walking around in a boot and is a longshot to start for a Philly team that has been outscored 20-13 in its last six games. Fans are questioning the team’s identity and feel they play without a sense of purpose.

Expect a desperate, frustrated and possibly angry group tonight.

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OUT OF THE GATES: Blue “throwbacks”

In my opinion, the baby blue third jerseys Pittsburgh wears shouldn’t be called “throwbacks” anymore.

The word “throwback” implies that they are jerseys that were worn in the past and have been brought back for a special occasion — a blast from the past, if you will. However, the Penguins wear their baby blue uniforms so often that the magic and appeal they once possessed — from the 2007 Winter Classic — has vanished quicker than X-Generation players from the National Hockey League (if anyone knows where Ramzi Abid or Rico Fata is, please let me know.)

It’s just disappointing. When the uniforms debuted, it was the first outdoor regular season game in the National Hockey League’s history, played at Ralph Wilson Stadium in front of over 70,000 fans in the snow, taking a shootout to decide the winner. The blue jerseys were forever cemented in history after that game.

Yet we now see the Penguins in baby blue jerseys in roughly one of every eight games. They’re no longer special and it’s a shame.

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Streaks end in win over Florida

One win can’t solve all problems.

Penguins 3 — Panthers 2 FOT

But the Penguins sure tried to Saturday night, putting an end to multiple streaks they’d prefer not to be associated with.

Carrying a struggling power play and a few struggling scorers in to the contest, Pittsburgh saw Ruslan Fedotenko and Evgeni Malkin each score to end personal droughts in a 3-2 win against Florida. Malkin’s came on the power play in overtime — a power play ranked 29th in the league entering the game.

“I hope it’s what we needed,” said coach Dan Bylsma of the power play goal. “We have had some good power plays (lately) and not scored.

“Sometimes the only thing we hadn’t done was score the goal. Tonight I think you saw us squeezing our sticks a little bit out there on the power play and sometimes you need a goal to release that. We were pretty happy to see that slap shot go in.”

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Penguins finding their identity

December is typically where teams develop their identity.

Florida Panthers (11-14-6, 28 pts.) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (21-10-1, 43 pts.)

October is for shaking off the rust of the offseason, November is where players begin to get comfortable and find their groove, and when December hits, it’s time to find out who’s for real and who’s not.

So far, the Penguins have established their identity as a pretty complete team. They’re right on pace with the 1992-93 Penguins, which was the best regular season team in franchise history, displaying scoring strength, stout defense and toughness throughout the roster.

“I think that we’ve worked on our identity the last 15 games a lot,” Matt Cooke said. “I think that teams underestimate how physical our team is. That’s probably a good thing for us. We realize where we have to play to be successful. If we make the commitment to play there then on most nights we’re giving ourselves the best chance to win.”

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