PITTSBURGH –The Pittsburgh Penguins have won four games in a row and five of six, but they haven’t played since last year.
OK, that was New Year’s Eve, so it will only be a stretch of eight days between games leading into Sunday’s matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning at PPG Paints Arena. Regardless, the Penguins are somewhat curious about how they will play.
They were among the first teams to have the NHL’s new “bye week,” so they are guinea pigs in the rest versus rust equation. After five days spent relaxing with friends and family, the players returned to a long practice Friday and a more standard session on Saturday.
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“All we can do is control what we can to put ourselves in a position to be successful. That’s what we’ve tried to do. We put a game plan together for the last couple of days. We had a strategy going into this break to try to manage the players through the break,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “So we’re controlling everything within our power to try to give ourselves a chance to be successful when that puck drops (Sunday). For me, that’s all we can do. Now it’s about mindset and about being ready to play – not easing into a game but making sure that we’re ready to play right from the drop of the puck.”
Perhaps it will be a benefit that the Penguins will be at home, where they are 10-0-1 in their past 11 games, and are coming off of their break against Tampa Bay. They are 12-3-1 in their past 16 games against the Lightning.
Pittsburgh (25-8-5) used a lot of game situations in its workout on Friday while Saturday was more about game preparation for Tampa Bay. There is no formal morning skate expected for Sunday.
“The coaches tried to keep a good pace in practice, tried to keep a good tempo,” Marc-Andre Fleury said. “Obviously, there’s nothing like playing games, so we’ve got to make the most of our practices. We’ll be well rested, that’s for sure.”
Fleury, who is expected to start in goal against the Lightning with Matt Murray sidelined by a lower-body injury, and winger Carl Hagelin missed Friday’s practice because of illness.
“It was a rough few days,” Fleury said. Both practiced Saturday.
As the Penguins were finishing up at PPG Paints Arena, the Lightning were just getting ready for the opening faceoff in Philadelphia. A four-goal Flyers’ second period led to a 4-2 loss for Tampa Bay, who held a 1-0 lead.
Alex Killorn, who scored Tampa Bay’s second goal, told the Tampa Bay Times that the early lead gave the Lightning “false confidence. … No fight back. Just wasn’t there. We need to be a lot better.”
It was the team’s third loss in a row and fourth in five games. A win would have moved the Lightning to within a point of the Flyers in the chase for a wild-card position in the Eastern Conference.
“The time is now,” coach Jon Cooper said of his team working to gain some traction.
A regulation loss in Pittsburgh Sunday would drop Tampa Bay (19-18-54) to .500 as the club struggles to find consistency while missing key players to injury, most notably captain Steven Stamkos and goalie Ben Bishop.
Andrei Vasilevskiy, 22, is 4-4-1 with Bishop out, including making the past eight starts. He has allowed 14 goals over the past three games – although he made 40 saves against Philadelphia.