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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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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Montreal presents difficult scenario

All at once, Montreal presents a potentially dangerous situation along with a chance for the Penguins to change their recent struggles.

Pittsburgh Penguins (20-10-1, 41 pts.) at Montreal Canadiens (15-14-2, 32 pts.)

No team in the National Hockey League is better than the Canadiens at protecting an early lead — they are 10-1-0 when scoring the first goal this year.

That could spell tragedy for a Pittsburgh team that has fallen down 1-0 in the last six games and in seven of the last eight. However, knowing Montreal’s success when scoring first could serve the Penguins with the motivation needed to play a strong first period and earn an early lead of their own.

“They have a great crowd there so I’m sure they get momentum from that,” Sidney Crosby said when asked about why it has been so hard to come back on the Canadiens this year. “I don’t think we’re going to think about it a whole lot. We wanna make sure that we start well. Sometimes you can have a great first period and be down 1-0. We’ll look for our play to be where it needs to be and usually, if that’s the case, we’ll come out with the lead.”

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Early struggles continue to haunt Pens

Sidney Crosby’s comments after Tuesday’s practice could apply to any of the Penguins recent performances.

“I mean, you’re gonna lose games. Sometimes you’re gonna play well and lose games,” Crosby said. “Other times you’re not gonna be happy with your play and I think last game would fit in to that category. We weren’t happy with the way we played, especially the first period. So we’ll be looking to bounce back here in Montreal.”

What made Monday night different from recent games was that the team felt compelled to hold a closed-door meeting to discuss the slow starts. Coming out of the meeting, it appears evident the problems have been mental and focus-driven.

“I think that we can be certain and pretty clear that, physically, we were ready to work,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “But a lot of work is mentally applying yourself. That’s where we were not as sharp as we needed to be.

“That’s something we talked about this morning … and have to be better at in the future.”

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Crosby will play tonight vs. Canes

The Pittsburgh Penguins experienced a first Monday morning, as every single player on the roster participated in the morning skate.

Carolina Hurricanes (6-17-5, 17 points) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (20-9-1, 41 points)

Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Alex Goligoski all recently missed games to injury, but joined the rest of the team on Mellon Arena ice this morning. For a team that has suffered through a slew of injuries to key players at seemingly every position, it’s a big and positive step forward.

Crosby announced after the skate that he will play. He said the pain in his groin is gone and he’s fine to return to the lineup.

“I’m in,” Crosby said. “I’ve had a good couple days of rest and got it worked on. There’s no more pain. That’s all I really wanted to get rid of. I can deal with it right now.”

Kunitz and Goligoski are a longshot to play tonight. Today was their first time back skating and players rarely appear back in game situations that quickly.

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NHL suspends Ovechkin

Colin Campbell finally showed some guts Tuesday, suspending Alex Ovechkin for two games after his collision with Carolina’s Tim Gleason.

It was unclear as to whether or not Ovechkin would receive further punishment from the National Hockey League, other than the game misconduct he served in the game. NHL officials have been rather inconsistent in serving ‘superstar’ players with suspensions and Ovechkin — a player with a track record of running at players with no consequences — presented the league with a prime chance to set an example.

The fact that Ovechkin was rather blatant in his pursuit and hit on Gleason made it a little bit easier for the league to issue a suspension.

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Freaky Monday, crazy injuries in the NHL

Putting personal opinions aside and focusing on the actual play, it appears the National Hockey League has a perfect chance to prove it won’t baby its superstars.

Alex Ovechkin took a run at Carolina’s Tim Gleason, injuring himself and receiving an ejection for the second time in less than a week. Monday’s ejection was for kneeing as Ovechkin clearly stuck his right knee out to prevent Gleason from proceeding out of his own end.

The Caps superstar was ejected Wednesday for boarding in a game against the Buffalo Sabres.

The run Ovechkin took on Gleason was eerily similar to the shot on Sergei Gonchar that enraged many Pens’ fans in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Here’s the video. You be the judge.

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