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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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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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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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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Dupuis’ goal lifts Pens to win

Pascal Dupuis put all he had into the puck when streaking down the left wing tied 2-2 in the third period.

Pittsburgh Penguins 3 — Montreal Canadiens 2

In other words, he used a mentality that had escaped the Penguins at times over the last week. His all was enough to will a fluttering puck in and out of Carey Price’s glove hand and give the Penguins a 3-2 lead they would not relinquish.

“(The puck) was a little bit on the edge so I just tried to hit it as hard as I could,” said Dupuis of his eighth goal of the season — a game winner in his hometown of Montreal. “I don’t know where it went. I think it went in his glove and behind him. But you know what, I’ll take it here in Montreal.”

Pittsburgh got off to a great start and received a little bit of late luck to earn the victory, improving to 21-10-1 on the season.

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Woe is the Pens power play

Eighteen power play goals in 31 games just isn’t cutting it.

What’s worse is the Penguins and their coaching staff know it, but haven’t been able to rectify the situation. Pittsburgh currently ranks 28th in the National Hockey League in power play efficiency with a success rate of 14.3 percent.

Assistant coach Mike Yeo is the orchestrator of the power play and, at times since joining the staff in Pittsburgh, has been criticized for the unit’s lack of consistency with the man advantage.

“We continually try to work on the fundamentals in our practices,” coach Dan Bylsma said Tuesday after practice. “We try to keep reiterating what we need to do to try to have success.

“Really, I think focus is the biggest issue. Last game we had a very good power play in the second period. We executed, we had zone time, we moved the puck around, we had a great scoring chance — didn’t go our way — and in the third our focus and execution … was not there.”

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