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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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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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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Game #1: Rangers vs. Pens

Well, the not-so-long wait is over, folks.

nyrpit

New York Rangers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

Is it just me, or does it feel like we were tailgating outside of the Igloo a week ago? Wasn’t I just embracing complete strangers at Mario’s in the Southside after winning in Game 7?

Well, it’s been almost four months (112 days) since the Penguins hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup and the season begins tonight as they raise their Stanley Cup banner, playing the Rangers at Mellon Arena in the opening game of their 2009-10 season. The Rangers were a team that played well against the Pens in 2008-09 and with winger Marian Gaborik on board, have a lot of potential.

As always under GM Glen Sather, their big question is, can they live up to that potential?

It’s funny, though, because few remember how much the Rangers actually helped the Penguins on their journey to Stanley Cup glory. Let’s take a trip back to Saturday April 11, 2009, and I’ll explain…

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