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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Fleury stands tall, Pens win in OT

After breezing through a 6-1 shellacking of the Philadelphia Flyers Tuesday night, Marc-Andre Fleury must have known things would be far different at the Wachovia Center.

Penguins 3 — Flyers 2

One thing’s for sure, his focus traveled with him to Philly.

Fleury stopped 31 of 33 shots as well as both of Philadelphia’s shootout attempts as the Pittsburgh Penguins won, 3-2, in a two-round shootout. Key saves in each period helped keep the Flyers from mounting anything more than a one-goal lead, allowing Kris Letang and Sidney Crosby to net each of their attempts in the shootout for the win.

“A shootout always starts with your goalie — you need the saves in there to give yourselves a chance to win,” Crosby said. “As a shooter you’re much more confident when you’re shootin’ to win instead of playin’ catch up. There’s not as much pressure. That really starts with Flower. He provided that cushion for our shooters to really go for it.”

It was just another stellar performance in net for Fleury, who is now 9-1-1 in his last 11 games with a goals against average of 1.88 and a save percentage well of .925.

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Streaks end in win over Florida

One win can’t solve all problems.

Penguins 3 — Panthers 2 FOT

But the Penguins sure tried to Saturday night, putting an end to multiple streaks they’d prefer not to be associated with.

Carrying a struggling power play and a few struggling scorers in to the contest, Pittsburgh saw Ruslan Fedotenko and Evgeni Malkin each score to end personal droughts in a 3-2 win against Florida. Malkin’s came on the power play in overtime — a power play ranked 29th in the league entering the game.

“I hope it’s what we needed,” said coach Dan Bylsma of the power play goal. “We have had some good power plays (lately) and not scored.

“Sometimes the only thing we hadn’t done was score the goal. Tonight I think you saw us squeezing our sticks a little bit out there on the power play and sometimes you need a goal to release that. We were pretty happy to see that slap shot go in.”

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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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Dupuis’ goal lifts Pens to win

Pascal Dupuis put all he had into the puck when streaking down the left wing tied 2-2 in the third period.

Pittsburgh Penguins 3 — Montreal Canadiens 2

In other words, he used a mentality that had escaped the Penguins at times over the last week. His all was enough to will a fluttering puck in and out of Carey Price’s glove hand and give the Penguins a 3-2 lead they would not relinquish.

“(The puck) was a little bit on the edge so I just tried to hit it as hard as I could,” said Dupuis of his eighth goal of the season — a game winner in his hometown of Montreal. “I don’t know where it went. I think it went in his glove and behind him. But you know what, I’ll take it here in Montreal.”

Pittsburgh got off to a great start and received a little bit of late luck to earn the victory, improving to 21-10-1 on the season.

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Anyone else relieved?

It’s probably wrong to say that it’s a good thing three of the Penguins’ stars are out of the lineup for a good portion of the near future.

Blues Penguins HockeyNHL/

But recent history says it might be for the best.

One can’t forget that Sergei Gonchar, who will sit anywhere from four to six weeks with a broken wrist, sat out more than half of last season with a separated shoulder. The year before that, Penguins’ captain Sidney Crosby missed significant time during the regular season with a high ankle sprain — as did Marc-Andre Fleury.

The result of all those injuries was positive — one ended in a Stanley Cup Finals appearance and the other a Stanley Cup victory.

These recent injuries almost come as a welcome reminder of what happens to this team when it faces adversity — it just gets stronger.

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Pens 3, Canes 2 — shootout

When you talk about unlikely candidates to win a game — Chris Kunitz is it.

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Pittsburgh Penguins 3 — Carolina Hurricanes 2, SOT

I mean, the guy hadn’t scored a goal yet this season while playing on the Penguins’ top line, he scored just one in the playoffs last year and, all told, had scored just one goal in his last 35 games.

Ironically, he also had this story published in the paper the day of the game, documenting his recent scoring troubles.

Well, all he did was step to the puck as the Penguins’ sixth shooter and potted home the game winner to give the Pittsburgh Penguins a 3-2 overtime win and perfect 4-0-0 roadtrip to start the season. It also makes the Penguins 5-0 on the road to start the season since entering the NHL in 1967.

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