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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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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