NHL

Penguins applying pressure to Rangers

Hockey Primetime Bill Weisbrod
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The Pittsburgh Penguins are peaking at the right time and creeping up on the New York Rangers for the Atlantic Division title. They are also playing like a team that can be considered among the favorites for the Stanley Cup.

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Even though Feb. 19 in Buffalo might have been one of the worst days of Pittsburgh's season, that Sunday was also a turning point for the Penguins.

After a disappointing 6-2 loss to the Sabres, an opponent that has spent most of the season outside the top eight in the Eastern Conference, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma described it as "a letdown."

Since that low point, Pittsburgh's play has been anything by a letdown. The Penguins have not lost since and stretched their winning streak to eight games with Friday's 2-1 shootout victory over the Florida Panthers.

And as a result of being one of the NHL’s hottest teams during that stretch, Pittsburgh has made the race to the top of the Atlantic Division suddenly very interesting.

After James Neal and Evgeni Malkin scored in the shootout, the Penguins are just six points behind the now-floundering first-place Rangers, who've won just two of their past six. Both teams have 16 games remaining, including head-to-head contests on March 15 and April 5.

Malkin, currently looking like a virtual lock for the Hart Trophy, is one of the main reasons the Penguins have been so successful. With 38 goals and 43 assists in 59 games, Malkin has carried Pittsburgh’s offense and made it easier to stomach that the team has been without captain Sidney Crosby since early December.

Malkin is also closing in on the third 100-point season of his six-year career and is challenging Crosby for the mantle of best hockey player in the world. At the very least, Malkin's spectacular production has mitigated the impact of Crosby’s absence.

The 25-year-old Russian has not been a one-man show.

Neal, who has ridden shotgun on a line with Malkin much of the year, has already broken the 30-goal barrier for the first time in his career.

Center Jordan Staal is enjoying the most productive season of his NHL career, but has appeared in just 46 Penguins games because of injuries. His presence on the team’s second line is a major factor in its resurgence.

Kris Letang, established as one of the NHL’s elite offensive defensemen, has been sidelined with concussion-related issues for large portions of the season. While Letang is a key cog for Pittsburgh, Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik and Zbynek Michalek have logged crucial minutes on the team’s blueline in his absence.

Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, only 27, already has one Stanley Cup ring, and there is no reason he can’t do it again. Even without Crosby, one could make a case the Penguins are the favorites to win the Eastern Conference. If the captain, who has been cleared for contact, returns this year, Pittsburgh could be the favorite to win the Stanley Cup.

Notes

Rangers forward Brandon Dubinsky has been dealing with what the team calls “sinus pressure” after a fight in Tuesday’s loss in New Jersey. He has missed all contests since and a return date has not been set. . . . Devils center Travis Zajac is still skating on his own but out of game action while dealing with an Achilles injury he suffered in the offseason. Zajac has played in only eight games this year, but the team has expressed confidence he will return during the season. . . . Flyers goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, who has struggled during his first season in Philadelphia, recorded his second straight shutout with a 5-0 victory against the Florida Panthers on Thursday.

Tagged: Devils, Rangers, Penguins, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin

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