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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Honorable Mention — Darius Kasparaitis’ game winner

Not only was he the most unlikely candidate, but he did it under the most unlikely circumstances.

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It was the playoffs … Game 7 … on the road … overtime … against one of the greatest goaltenders in the game.

Robert Lang, a goal-scorer, skated up the right wing with the puck in to the Sabres’ zone and eyed the net.  He had a defenseman in front of him and a trailing Kasparaitis.  The last thing anyone thought was that he’d pass it to a clearly inept scorer in Kasper.

Obviously, Dominic Hasek thought so too as the puck sailed past him and in to the net.

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Honorable Mention — Winter Classic

Everyone watching the game got a special feeling when Ty Conklin stopped Buffalo’s third shooter, Maxim Afinogenov, sending Sidney Crosby to center ice with the game on his stick.

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I turned to my friends and said, “if Sid scores, this is everything Gary Bettman could have ever dreamed of.”

It was theater to the 10th degree.  I hate using a Pierre MacGuire saying, but it’s true.  The game was like the NHL’s Super Bowl and the league’s Tom Brady had one last drive to win the game.

Crosby took the puck, skated in on Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller, slowly drove in and, at the last second, fired the puck between Miller’s legs to win the game.  It was the beginning of something special for the Penguins.  It was a kick start to the first Stanley Cup Finals appearance for Pittsburgh since 1992.  Lastly, it gave tons of Penguins fans, and the nation, a glimpse of how exciting the new style of NHL play could be.

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Pittsburgh is Hockey Town

Many have had this debate in the past, claiming their team and home is the best place for hockey in the National Hockey League.

Detroit owns the title, “HockeyTown USA.”  However, the Red Wings have struggled to sell out games in recent years and are subjected to a decent number of visiting fans in the stands every game, regular season and playoffs.  Take this year’s Stanley Cup Finals as THE prime example.

This Stanley Cup Final, the second in a row involving Pittsburgh, has brought to my attention that the title of ‘HockeyTown’ needs to relocate.

Some have have pushed for the consecutive sellout streak in Minnesota, filling every game since the team returned to Minneapolis.  Others vouch for the rabid fans in Buffalo and the Orange Crush in Philadelphia.

Here’s my push.  Yes, it’s a biased one for the Pittsburgh Penguins.  However, with the recent playoff run and becoming Stanley Cup Champions it’s hard to imagine a better candidate.

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Talk about big games, Pens vs. Panthers

This is the biggest game of the season so far.  There’s no doubt.

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With a Montreal loss to Edmonton, the winner of this game moves up into 5th place in the Eastern Conference Standings.  That’s huge.

Now the standings don’t really mean much now, but it just shows how close this race really is.  The Penguins and Panthers are tied with 76 points.

This is the third meeting of the year between the two and earning two points will go far in determining tiebreakers.

People … huge.

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