PITTSBURGH (AP) - So what if the calendar reads early February? The way the Pittsburgh Penguins figure it, the playoffs have already started.
Pittsburgh took a modest three-game winning streak into the All-Star break, part of a 5-1-2 surge that moved the Penguins into the Eastern Conference's eighth and final postseason spot.
The solid two-plus week stretch showed tangible proof of new head coach Mike Sullivan's aggressive mindset. Yet the job is hardly finished, and Sullivan's players know it as the Penguins resume play Tuesday night versus the Ottawa Senators.
"Our playoffs basically start now," captain Sidney Crosby said.
In the crowded East, where 11 teams are separated by nine points in the standings, there really isn't any choice.
The days when Pittsburgh and its top-heavy roster could float above the fray and watch the clubs below it scramble for position are long gone. The Penguins (24-17-7) are right in the middle of the fight for the second straight year.
It took until the final day of the regular season to lock down a playoff berth last spring. While they hope it doesn't come to that, they insist they're prepared for the 10-week sprint to the finish.
"With our position and understanding where we're at, our desperation has got to be at its highest," Crosby said. "That should bring out the best of us."
There were flashes of that desperation before the break.
A team that struggled to score early in the season has found the back of the net four times in its last six games, and Crosby has 10 points on a seven-game scoring streak thanks in part to a renewed effort at shooting the puck and spending more time around the goal.
While Crosby is encouraged, the two-time MVP doesn't consider his team's interest in getting toward the blue paint second nature - at least not yet.
"It's something on a game to game basis, you really have to remind yourself and work to get there," he said.
"Just because you've done it four or five games in a row means you're going to get there in the next one. It's a tough spot to go ... there's a lot that goes in it but the results look easy when it goes well."
The uptick offensively has taken some of the pressure off goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who basically held things together as the Penguins floundered in front of him through the season's first two months.
Fleury is 5-0-1 in his last six home starts with a pair of shutouts, including a 2-0 victory over perennial thorn New Jersey last Tuesday that sent Pittsburgh into the midseason hiatus on a high.
"I think we managed to put ourselves in a good spot before the break and we've got to keep going to make sure we stay that way," Fleury said.
The addition of Carl Hagelin has provided an immediate boost - he takes a four-game point streak into Tuesday's matchup - and general manager Jim Rutherford will almost certainly keep pressing to improve a roster that remains very much a work in progress.
The Penguins remain convinced their best hockey is in front of them. The trick now is turning the flashes they've shown of truly turning it around into something more lasting.
"I believe our team understands the circumstance we're in," Sullivan said. "We've been in this position for a while now. We've spoken about it at length. I believe this is a mature group and we have good leadership, strong leadership."
Ottawa (23-21-6) stumbled into the break with three losses in four games and enters this contest three points behind Pittsburgh for that last postseason berth.
The better play that followed Bobby Ryan calling his teammates out for their inconsistency was evident in patches Wednesday, but his goal wasn't enough in a 3-2 loss to Buffalo in which the Senators couldn't find a third-period equalizer despite outshooting the Sabres 22-2 in the final 20 minutes.
"We had chances to tie it up, but at the same time we don't want to put ourselves in positions like that where we have to score not only once, but twice to win the game," said defenseman Erik Karlsson, the team's lone All-Star representative.
Karlsson is fourth in the league with 52 points, but he and the Senators were blanked 2-0 at Pittsburgh on Oct. 15 in the only previous meeting this season. Evgeni Malkin and Daniel Sprong scored goals 2:02 apart early in the second period and Fleury turned aside 22 shots for the Penguins.
Malkin has 19 goals in 30 regular-season games against the Senators. Pittsburgh is 4-0-1 at home versus Ottawa since a 5-1 defeat Jan. 10, 2012.