Penguins-Hurricanes Preview

The Pittsburgh Penguins had been playing inconsistent hockey

since late December when the Olympic break rolled around, so they

were hoping two weeks away would revitalize the team as it prepares

to defend its Stanley Cup title.

A little time off seems to have done wonders.

The Penguins look for their fifth consecutive win when they open

a five-game road trip Thursday night at the RBC Center, where the

improving Carolina Hurricanes have little margin for error in their

effort to make a late postseason push.

Pittsburgh (40-22-4) had gone 10-11-3 and was outscored 81-70

from Dec. 27-Feb. 14, never winning more than two consecutive

games.

Despite those struggles, the Atlantic Division title was still

very much up for grabs as the Penguins headed into the Olympic

break just a point behind New Jersey.

Having two weeks to regroup – and adding a pair of players at

the trade deadline – seems to have Pittsburgh headed in the right

direction. Evgeni Malkin scored his second game-winning goal in

four days Sunday, lifting the Penguins to a 2-1 victory over Boston

and a 4-0 mark since the break.

Pittsburgh now has a three-point cushion on New Jersey in the

Atlantic.

“We know we’re doing well, so we need to keep doing it,” said

Sidney Crosby, who had two goals and four assists since securing

Canada’s gold medal with his overtime game-winner. “The games are

getting tougher and our level of play has to be higher, and the

last few games, it has been.”

An injection of some additional talent has given the Penguins a

boost. Defenseman Jordan Leopold, acquired from Florida, is

plus-four in four games, while winger Alexei Ponikarovsky, who came

over from Toronto, has a goal and an assist in two games.

The Russian-born Ponikarovsky has clicked with fellow countryman

Malkin, who has struggled at times to find a rapport with some of

his linemates.

“It has been a good line with a lot of Russian talk, which I

like,” said Malkin, who had six goals and three assists in the

Penguins’ four-game sweep of Carolina in the Eastern Conference

finals. “Poni is a big guy who likes to skate. I like what I see of

him. … He’s helping create a lot of traffic and a lot of scoring

chances.”

The Hurricanes (27-31-8) have spent much of the season with the

league’s worst record, but they’re certainly doing all they can to

make a late run at returning to the playoffs. Carolina entered

Wednesday’s game at Washington having won eight of nine since Feb.

5.

Despite taking the NHL’s best team past regulation, the

Hurricanes couldn’t escape with two points. Tomas Fleischmann beat

Manny Legace 3:20 into overtime to give the Capitals a 4-3 win.

Carolina is eight points behind Boston for the East’s eighth

seed.

“We’re judging ourselves by our fight more than anything else,”

Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice said. “We’re trying to get as many

points as we can, because we can’t walk away now without any.”

A big reason for the Hurricanes’ resurgence has been the play of

Jussi Jokinen, who has goals in three straight games and nine in

his last 10. He leads the Hurricanes with a career-best 27.

Jokinen had a goal in Carolina’s most recent meeting with the

Penguins, a 3-2 win on Dec. 7 at Mellon Arena. Ray Whitney scored

twice, but Crosby and Chris Kunitz tallied shootout goals to lift

Pittsburgh to a 3-2 road win on Oct. 14.

Penguins forward Matt Cooke is expected to play Thursday after

the NHL decided not to suspend him for Sunday’s blindside hit that

left Boston’s Marc Savard with a grade 2 concussion.