But in the game against the Senators, they were completely listless.
“It might be a good time for us to get out on the road and be together and kind of (have an) ‘us against the world’ attitude,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said at the time.
On the road they suffered another loss, though, shutout by the Capitals – and it became the team’s longest losing streak since Sidney Crosby’s was a rookie.
They couldn’t score – only six goals in six games. Even worse, they couldn’t battle any sort of adversity – even their coach admitted that.
Then came outside accusations about their character. That they questioned the commitment of their captain, whose life had always revolved around hockey. That they went behind his back and tried to replace him.
The makeshift C’s, black and white stick-tape hastily applied as badges of solidarity, became a rallying point for a desperate squad. A timely players-only meeting and a cameo by Sidney Crosby on their three-game road-trip through the Southeast Division helped the cause as well.
Finally, the Penguins got a win against the Florida Panthers, who were then the leaders of the Southeast Division. Subsequent wins against the Rangers—perhaps the team’s most impressive hockey of the season—Capitals and Blues proved that they were capable of beating the kind of teams they’d have to face in the postseason.
If there were flickers of life during the losing streak, perhaps a flame was lit during the game against the Capitals. The outside criticism, no matter how valid, seemed to be part of what set the Pens on fire again. Maybe that “us against the world” attitude finally began to materialize.
After that, the Penguins were one of the hottest teams in the league, winning seven games in a row. Over the days heading into the All-Star break, the Penguins attitude and toughness became synonymous with their winning streak. Four games were decided by one goal, including one overtime contest, and three games determined by a shootout.
“I just think you’re seeing our team play with an edge,” Penguins’ coach Dan Bylsma said after one win. “(We’re) playing with a bit of an attitude. That doesn’t always manifest itself out in (fighting) majors, but it has in the past four or five games for our team, and it’s an indication of where our guys are at.”
After losing six games in a row, Bylsma’s guys were apparently at the end of their collective ropes.
The Penguins coach is right about fighting not always being a measure of toughness, especially since fighting in the NHL has waned this year. But over their seven-game winning streak, the Pens did have eight fighting majors.
The physicality of their game aside, it was the Penguins’ mental toughness that helped them through close games. The kind of games you have to win in the playoffs. And they were doing it without Jordan Staal and Sidney Crosby.
“I like the mindset of our team,” Bylsma said after the win against Washington. “That we’re going to come back and we’re going to keep at it.”
Their edge and swagger also helped them to overcome deficits, something that, while riddled by injuries over the past year, they have rarely been able to accomplish. The Pens came from behind in their wins against Carolina, Montreal and Washington. Against the Canadiens, they were able to overcome a pair of two-goal deficits, including a 4-2 lead the Habs took into the third period.
“I think the response from our team in hard games has been right where it needs to be, in terms of being resilient,” Bylsma said after the shootout win over the Canadiens.
Whether those make-shift C’s during the morning skate days earlier were a real or imagined rallying point hardly matters. Whether things had changed in the locker room or not, things on the ice—where it matters—certainly had.
Suddenly the conversation surrounding the team also changed. The comments that the season was a wash, that the only thing to look forward to was Ray Shero making a splashy deadline deal to help keep the team afloat, drifted to more familiar territory. That, with Jordan Staal slated to be back in the lineup in a few weeks, giving the Pens more than just one great line, the Penguins could be a contender again. Maybe they can even do it without Sidney Crosby.
That was another change. Even the questions about Crosby’s status ebbed slightly because of the winning streak.
“The way we stayed positive through that losing streak (while) everyone was talking about our team and what’s wrong with it,” forward James Neal said after the Penguins seventh win in a row against St. Louis. “We didn’t let that affect us. We just came out and did our talking on the ice. It’s showing.”
Of course a changed attitude alone didn’t reverse the Penguins’ free fall through the Eastern Conference standings. The play of Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury, as well as the return of Kris Letang is what largely buoyed the team through choppy waters.
Although Neal is right that the Pens answered their critics with their current play, the winning streak does raise another question: Can the Penguins, assuming the current lineup stays healthy and Jordan Staal is back in it, contend for a Cup without Crosby?
Winning the Cup requires the perfect storm of talent, heart, goaltending and depth. So they need at least Jordan Staal back in the lineup, as the trios behind the Malkin-Neal-Kunitz unit have not shown they are capable of significant production.
After that, Malkin, Fleury, Staal and Kris Letang need to be at their best, as they have for most of this year, leading the way in their respective roles.
James Neal will have to continue doing what he does best – finishing. But he can’t be the only one. As of the All-Star break, Matt Cooke hadn’t scored since December 10th. Pascal Dupuis was also suffering through his longest drought of the season, 13 games without a goal, going into the break. But perhaps more eyes will be on Tyler Kennedy, who, with six goals through 38 games this season, has not found the spark or consistency that he had during the second half of last year.
The Penguins will also have to keep their edge. They’ll have to find a way to be desperate, even when they aren’t coming off of a six-game losing streak. They might need to play like they have a chip on their shoulder, even if it’s not a literal one in the form of a sloppy, homemade C.
“We’ve touched on the mindset and mentality of our team,” Bylsma said. “How we can play, playing with a little bit of an attitude. (That’s) Pittsburgh Penguin ice hockey – coming at you, keep coming at you.”
That’s also playoff hockey. And February is a good time to start perfecting it.