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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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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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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Pens aim for better start Saturday

The Penguins were, admittedly, a bit sluggish in the opening two periods of Thursday night’s 4-1 win against Colorado.

Chicago Blackhawks (17-6-3, 37 points) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (20-9-0, 40 points)

Even though they outshot the Avalanche, the Penguins were outplayed and outpaced for much of the opening two frames. A goal with seven seconds left in the first period allowed them to get on the board and a errant whistle in the second negated a Colorado goal to keep the game tied, 1-1, going in to the third.

“I don’t think we were happy with our game the first two periods,” Bill Guerin said Thursday. “We didn’t get to our system, to our style of play. In the third period we made a conscious effort to do it.”

Good teams can get away with that and win when playing opponents that aren’t stout defensively — such as Colorado’s and its goals against total, which stands at 93 this year. However, when the Chicago Blackhawks visit Mellon Arena Saturday, the Penguins likely won’t have that same benefit.

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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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Secondary scorers power the Pens

If any player was to take over a game, Mike Rupp wouldn’t be the first to come to mind.

Pittsburgh Penguins 5 — New York Rangers 2

Although, his recent play suggests maybe it should.

Rupp and Sidney Crosby combined to score five goals Monday night in a 5-2 win in New York — Rupp with a hat trick and Crosby adding two. The display showcased why the Pittsburgh Penguins are atop the Eastern Conference standings after 28 games: secondary scoring.

And it’s not just Rupp. He’s joined by a host of other third- and fourth-liners that have contributed consistently so far this season.

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