Detroit, Philadelphia, and New Jersey.
Just a week ago, this stretch of games looked like a trip through Dante's Inferno for the still injury-ridden Penguins. Even at the beginning of the year, this stretch of games looked to be a measuring stick for the Pens as the playoffs loom in the near future.
Three shootouts later, the Pens grabbed six points and made it eight with another shootout win over the Panthers. With Crosby and Malkin, Pens fans would be ecstatic as these wins show the Pens that they can take on Stanley Cup contending teams.
However, without two of the game's best players, these wins show that this scrappy bunch of players aren't ready or expecting to bow out early of Lord Stanley's dance.
For the Pens, these teams are all a unique challenge for the Pens in areas where the Pens were expected to struggle without a healthy line up. Detroit is a deep team with veteran leadership with every line. Philadelphia is a rival who plays physically and can take good players out of games by drawing penalties. New Jersey poses the challenge of dealing with a true defensive minded team led by Martin Brodeur and causes headaches for Marc-Andre Fleury.
The Pens handled each team with the poise of a Cup winning team fans love to watch. Even in the midst of a defensive collapse against Detroit, the Pens were able to jump out early and maintain a high level of energy to get them to a position to win.
Against the Flyers, the Pens showed more grit and heart in a meaningful game played for Atlantic Divisional and Eastern Conference supremacy. Finally against New Jersey, Brett Johnson and Martin Brodeur went toe to toe before the shootout that proved to be one round too many for the legendary Devils goaltender.
James Neal struck gold every time, reinforcing Ray Shero's mastery of personal and Dan Bylsma's patchwork lines came through each time.
The only downside for the Pens with all of these games is the shootout. Two points all count the same in the standings, causing worry in Philadelphia for the first time in a long while, but winning in the shootout is a double edged sword.
In the playoffs, games aren't won in shootouts, they're won with five-on-five hockey. The Pens seemed almost to be playing for the shootout in these games because this is when they knew they held an advantage.
Granted, it is very possible that this unit would be able to score in a 15 minute overtime period and five is just too short. However, without the instant playmaker-scoring threat that both Malkin and Crosby bring every shift, winning a playoff game in overtime with precision play execution is very difficult.
Regardless, the Pens have proven that all of the critics banking on a first or second round elimination should be careful with their words. This new-look Pens team is threatening to be the Butler of Stanley Cup Playoffs: solid, experienced, and lacking the usual glitz and glamour, but more importantly, a team that each and every night, simply finds a way to win.
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