Anatomy of the Pittsburgh Penguins' Amazing Winning Streak

Nicholas Goss@@NicholasGoss35Correspondent IApril 2, 2013

Anatomy of the Pittsburgh Penguins' Amazing Winning Streak

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    The Pittsburgh Penguins finished the month of March with a perfect 15-0 record.

    This helped them become the first team in NHL history with an undefeated month in which at least 10 games were played.

    They are now three wins away from breaking the NHL record for the most consecutive victories (17), which oddly enough was set by the Penguins during the 1992-93 season.

    If the Penguins defeat the struggling Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday, they will play the rival New York Rangers on Wednesday with an opportunity to tie the record at Madison Square Garden.

    There have been a lot of key factors in Pittsburgh's amazing success over the last month. Let's look at an in-depth breakdown of one of the best winning streaks that the NHL has ever seen.

Playoff Loss to Rival Philadelphia Flyers Has Motivated Penguins

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    The Penguins were dominated by their hated rivals in the first round of the playoffs last season.

    They were picked by many to reach the Stanley Cup Final thanks to the healthy return of superstar center Sidney Crosby during the final 22 games of the year.

    Pittsburgh allowed an average of five goals per game over the series, and their performance defensively was absolutely awful. It was also the worst six-game stretch of starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury's career, evidenced by the fact that he finished the series with a 4.63 GAA and a .834 save percentage.

    This was one of the most embarrassing playoff losses for the Penguins in their proud history.

    And it has clearly motivated this team in 2013.

    Many of the players on the current roster were on the 2008-09 team that won the Stanley Cup. Since that championship season, Pittsburgh has not made it past the second round of the playoffs.

    These players understand that chances to be an all-time great team and win the Stanley Cup don't come around very often. This is a determined and focus group with just one goal in mind: winning.

Two Terrible Losses Spark an Incredible Winning Streak

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    The Penguins ended February with two terrible losses. They were defeated 6-4 to the last-place Florida Panthers and were then beaten by the Carolina Hurricanes 4-1 to close out the month.

    The Panthers loss was the second time in one week that the Penguins had given up six goals in one game.

    When the team's winning streak ends, we will look back on these two losses as the moment that sparked an improvement from the Penguins.

    It was the team's third loss in five games. Pittsburgh needed to improve if it wanted to build a lead in the Eastern Conference standings over the red-hot Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens.

    Two days after the Hurricanes defeat, the Penguins beat the Montreal Canadiens 7-6 in overtime at the Bell Centre in one of the most exciting games of the season.

    At this moment, the streak was born.

High-Powered Offense Key to Penguins' Success Early in Streak

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    The Penguins' defensive concerns at the end of February were not corrected in the early part of the team's remarkable winning streak.

    In the first four games of the streak, Pittsburgh allowed an average of 4.25 goals.

    For most teams, allowing this many goals each night would result in four straight losses.

    But thanks to their scoring depth and impressive top-six forward group, Pittsburgh was able to overcome its defensive struggles by dominating teams offensively.

    The Penguins averaged 5.4 goals during the first five games of the streak. This helped them climb to the top of the league leaderboard for the most goals scored—which is a position they currently hold as of April 2.

    The best example of the Penguins' offense bailing out the team's poor defense and goaltending was its 5-4 comeback victory over the Flyers in the third game of the streak.

    Philadelphia jumped out to a 4-1 first period lead. But Pittsburgh scored the final four goals of the game and took their first lead 18 seconds into the third period with a goal from Chris Kunitz (video).

    This victory showed why no lead is safe when you are playing Pittsburgh because its offense has too much firepower.

Penguins' Defense Improves, Team Excels in One-Goal Games

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    The most impressive part of the Penguins' streak is the team's performance defensively.

    Following its 5-4 shootout victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs, Pittsburgh has not allowed more than two goals in a single game.

    In the last 11 games of the streak, the Penguins have given up 0.54 goals per game. This includes three shutouts in their last three victories (four total in the streak).

    Over the entire streak, the Penguins have played nine different teams, and seven of them are ranked 14th or better in goals scored (including three in the top five). Pittsburgh has played some of the best offensive teams, but it has only allowed an average of 1.73 goals per game in their last 15 wins.

    Pittsburgh was in the bottom half of the league in goals against at the beginning of the streak, but now the team has the fourth-best GAA (2.30). 

    This success can be attributed to many things: winning puck battles in the defensive zone, forwards back-checking, defensemen blocking shots and strong goaltending.

    Another fascinating part of the Penguins' play defensively during the streak has been their ability to win close games.

    Eight of their 15 wins (excluding one shootout victory) were by one goal. The Penguins have 11 one-goal wins over the entire season (the most among Eastern Conference teams) and their .917 win percentage in this scenario is the best in the NHL.

    Making smart plays defensively, killing penalties and getting big saves late in the third period are all necessary ingredients to winning hockey games.

    And all three of these things have been a huge part of Pittsburgh's incredible streak.

    This is the kind of defensive performance that the Penguins will need in the playoffs.

    They weren't anywhere near this good against the Flyers in last year's first round. This cost them the series despite the fact that they scored an average of 4.3 goals over the six games.

Two Wins over Bruins Established Penguins as Beasts of the East

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    Before their matchup on March 12, the Bruins and Penguins had not played in the 2013 regular season. At the time, Boston was the best team in the East.

    But it had not proven itself against Pittsburgh, who was on a five-game winning streak.

    After going into the third period down 2-0, the Penguins scored three times in a seven-minute span to earn their best victory of the streak.

    The Bruins lead the NHL in GAA in the third period. This made the Penguins' offensive success in the final 20 minutes of the game quite impressive, especially when you consider the fact that Evgeni Malkin did not play.

    Five days later on March 17, Pittsburgh beat Boston 2-1 to win the season series (these teams play once more on April 19 in Boston).

    Over the two games between these teams, the Penguins did not allow the Bruins to score in the second or third periods.

    The Peguins also proved that even as a skilled team, they are fully capable of winning close games against the most physical clubs in the league.

    There is no style of hockey that Pittsburgh is incapable of having success in.

    Defeating the Bruins twice proved that the Eastern Conference's best team was the Penguins. And it also established Pittsburgh as the favorites to win the Stanley Cup.

    Pittsburgh is 5-0 against the top-three teams in the Eastern Conference standings (Bruins, Canadiens and Winnipeg Jets) during this streak.

Sidney Crosby Was Playing Some of the Best Hockey of His Career

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    Sidney Crosby was hit in the face with a puck during Saturday's victory over the New York Islanders, and he will be out of the lineup indefinitely with a jaw injury (via Penguins).

    Before his injury, Crosby was playing some of the best hockey of his career. He established himself as the unanimous favorite for the Hart and Art Ross trophies.

    He currently leads the NHL with 56 points (15 goals, 41 assists). During the Penguins' streak, Crosby had 25 points (six goals, 19 assists) in 15 games. He led all NHL players in points and assists during March.

    Aldo during this 15-game win streak, Crosby failed to tally a point in just two of the Penguins' 15 straight wins—including Saturday when he got injured and played only one shift. He had eight multi-point games, scored three or more point in three games and notched two or more assists in seven games.

    Crosby's absence from the lineup will make the Penguins' scoring depth weaker.

    However, it helps that Malkin is now back from his injury to lead the team's offense with newly-acquired forwards Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla.

    Even if Crosby does not play again during the regular season, it wouldn't be surprising if he still won the Hart Trophy.

    He's been that good this season.

Chris Kunitz Is Having a Career Season

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    Winning 15 games in a row isn't possible unless role players perform at a high level.

    Chris Kunitz's performance this season has been a fine example of the huge impact that role players can have on a championship caliber team like the Penguins.

    He currently ranks third in the league in scoring with 44 points (20 goals, 24 assists) in 36 games.

    His 20 goals lead the team and he's one of two NHL players with 20-plus goals and 20-plus assists this season (Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos is the other).

    The 33-year-old forward also ranks fourth in power-play goals scored.

    Kunitz has 20 points (11 goals, nine assists) in the Penguins' 15-game win streak and he is the main reason why Crosby leads the NHL in scoring. Kunitz is certainly benefiting from being alongside the greatest playmaker in the world in Crosby, but he still has to find the back of the net on his own.

    Kunitz is giving the Penguins another reliable goal scorer on the wing. Without his scoring and success on the team's top line, Pittsburgh would not lead the NHL in goals scored or have the third-best power-play.

    In addition to his consistent offensive production, Kunitz also brings energy, leadership and defensive skill to the Penguins lineup each game.

Strong 1st and 3rd Periods Key to Penguins' Success

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    The key to winning games, especially against good teams, is having a strong first and third period.

    The Penguins start games as well as anyone with 38 goals scored in the first period this season—the second-highest total in the league.

    Pittsburgh also ranks second in third period goals scored with 46. The Penguins have scored 20 third period goals during their winning streak.

    Not only are the Penguins scoring a lot of goals in the first and third periods of games, their opponents are finding it very difficult to have success offensively. Pittsburgh has allowed the third-fewest first period goals (20) this season and are tied with the Bruins for the least amount of third period goals allowed (23).

    Every championship teams finds a way to make life miserable for opponents early in the game and also capitalize on scoring chances in the final period.

    The Penguins do both of these on a consistent basis.

    It's one major reason why the team has won 15 straight games.

Marc-Andre Fleury Is a Star No. 1 Goalie Again

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    After playing the worst hockey of his NHL career in the playoffs last year, Marc-Andre Fleury has been excellent in 2013.

    Fleury is 18-5-1 in 24 games this season with one shutout. His GAA (2.24) and save percentage (.918) are better than his numbers from last year.

    The 28-year-old goaltender has eight wins during the Penguins' winning streak with a 2.00 GAA and a .928 save percentage.

    In his last five starts, Fleury has given up just three goals with two shutouts.

    But the most impressive part of Fleury's season thus far has been his consistency: He's only lost back-to-back games once in 2013.

    For the Penguins to be successful in the playoffs, they need Fleury to perform at a high level and not give up any soft goals that give the opposing team a chance to make a comeback.

    There will be a lot of pressure on Fleury during the postseason.

    However, his fantastic play during the team's win streak should give Fleury a little more confidence than he had last year.

Even When Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang Are Injured, Penguins Keep Winning

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    Not having superstar center Evgeni Malkin and No. 1 defenseman Kris Letang in the lineup are huge losses for the Penguins.

    But credit GM Ray Shero for building a roster with tremendous depth that can replace top-tier players and still win games against the best teams.

    Malkin missed nine games during the streak, but returned for Thursday's win over the Winnipeg Jets. He has one goal and an assist in his two games back from injury.

    With second line left-winger James Neal and third-line center Brandon Sutter struggling in Malkin's absence, Pascal Dupuis has stepped up his game.  

    Dupuis had six goals and two assists in the nine games that Malkin missed.

    Crosby also had 14 points during Malkin's absence, which helped replace his offensive production quite a bit.

    The Penguins' first line of Kunitz, Crosby and Dupuis was the best line in the NHL last month. And with Crosby now injured, Malkin will step in and lead the offense.

    It's very possible that Neal, Malkin and Iginla will play together on the second line, which has the potential to be the best line in hockey.

    As for Letang, he was injured on March 17 against the Bruins. He returned to the lineup on March 26 versus the Montreal Canadiens but picked up another injury and has missed the last two games.

    There hasn't been a defenseman who has produced much offensively in Letang's absence, but that isn't a problem for the Penguins since the bulk of their scoring comes from the forwards.

    Pittsburgh has tremendous scoring depth, which allows them to win without two of their three-best offensively skilled players. Seven Penguins players have tallied more than 20 points this season, which is quite impressive.

    Now that Malkin is healthy and Shero has added Iginla and Morrow to the lineup, don't expect the Penguins offense to struggle despite the fact that Crosby, Letang and Paul Martin are out of the lineup due to injuries.


    Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs in Boston.

    All salary information courtesy of CapGeek.