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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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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Crosby producing at a record pace

Bill Guerin scored the game-winning goal in the third period of a 4-1 victory over the Colorado Avalanche Thursday, driving home yet another assists from Sidney Crosby as he continues a historic stretch of hockey.

Colorado Avalanche 1 — Pittsburgh Penguins 4

Quite honestly, this could be the best span of play in Crosby’s career.

The Penguins captain has seven goals and four assists in his last three games, but it dates back further than that. Since losing 6-2 at Ottawa on Nov. 19, the Penguins have won six of their last seven games. In those seven games Crosby has had a hand in more than half of the team’s goals, registering 15 total points.

And with a 4-1 win over Colorado, the Penguins advanced to their 20th win of the season (20-9-0) while Crosby set his goal-scoring pace to well over 50 goals and 100 points.

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Mr. Dependable on defense: Mark Eaton

Defensively, this season has been anything but ordinary.

A revolving door that has seen Sergei Gonchar, Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Jay McKee and Alex Goligoski — who is out of the lineup again with a lower body injury — miss time to injury has had one stalwart: Mark Eaton.

Eaton has played in all 28 games for the Penguins so far in 2009-10, sitting third on the team with a plus-7 rating. He doesn’t make big hits like Orpik or score goals with precision accuracy like Gonchar. He does, however, move on with a quiet and confident demeanor that has turned him in to one of the most reliable players on the squad.

“He goes out there, whether he’s the sixth defenseman or whether he’s the second defenseman, he seems to play the same way with the same demeanor,” Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said.  “It’s tough to tell when his bad days are, because of matter-of-fact and how professional he is about the way he works and plays.”

That steadiness has taken him a while to develop, considering the beginning of his career in Pittsburgh was marred by injuries.

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Roster Outlook

Say thanks to Billy Guerin, Ruslan Fedotenko and Craig Adams.

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But don’t just say it because they came back.  Sure, we’re grateful for that.  However, all three took pay cuts to stay with the team.

It allows for more cap room in an NHL economy that isn’t so great.  There’s also the comfort of having chemistry as the top three lines are under contract.

The way things look right now look pretty similar to last year.  It’s not a bad image to build upon.

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Free Agency – Defense

Rob Scuderi (‘The Piece’), Philippe Boucher and Hal Gill.

Three more big names for the Penguins.  Each played a significant role in both the regular season and postseason.

As I guestimated in the forward scenario, Shero might be able to make a couple signings for around $4 million.  If that’s the case, he has roughly $5.3 million left in cap space.

Defense seems to be a pretty big issue.

Click read more for a breakdown of each defensive free agent and my take on who can/should be signed and who should sail off into the free agent market.

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History rewritten, Life’s worth living

All series I’ve been dogging Jordan Staal.  Tonight he finally decided to shut me up.

Jordan Staal turned a situation that could have basically ended the series into arguably the biggest goal of this postseason for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

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After Detroit went up 2-1, we all felt like death.  Everyone felt good about a 1-0 lead, but knew in the back of their mind that one goal is never enough against the Wings.  Well, that proved to be true.

And when the Pens had nearly killed off a 2-minute minor for hooking on Evgeni Malkin, Brooks Orpik was called for tripping.  Things looked bleak.  A goal on that power play would have nearly sealed the Pens’ coffin shut on the game and potentially the series.

Staal would have none of that …

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