Don't look now, but the Pittsburgh Penguins are just two points shy of the top spot in the Eastern Conference. A regulation win on Tuesday against the conference-leading Philadelphia Flyers and they'll equal the Flyers' pace-setting point total.
Amazing, isn't it, to think that just a couple of months ago there were legitimate concerns about the Penguins even making the playoffs. Instead, they've learned how to win without the considerable contributions of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Tyler Kennedy has become one of the go-to players on offense, firing every puck that he can find on goal as though he were a Brian Gionta clone. Jordan Staal has shown flashes of the offensive dynamism that typified the start of his career. Add in Chris Kunitz's post-injury bum-rush of goal scoring and the Penguins have started to give opposing defenses something to think about.
Beyond all this, though, the Penguins are still in contention for a pole position in the playoffs primarily due to the heroics of Marc-Andre Fleury and the team's commitment to defense.
The pricey signings of Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek look better by the day and the Penguins' balance and experience on defense cleanly separates this year's team from last year's version. Where Brooks Orpik's injury could have derailed the penalty kill last year, no considerable fall off happened in his absence this year. Where Kris Letang's offensive production has diminished of late, surprising contributions from Michalek and Ben Lovejoy have helped fill the holes in a bit.
In fact, the performances of the undrafted Lovejoy and unheralded Deryk Engelland have been big reasons why things have worked out so well on defense this year. What looked to be a weakness in the off-season has turned out to be a null sum in the club's equation. Neither player holds the Penguins back and that's all the team really requires of them.
It is hard to be too optimistic over the club's recent four-game winning streak. After all, the Penguins have won each of the games via the shootout, a tool that will not be at their disposal come playoff time. But, in the process of the streak, the Penguins have shown the aforementioned qualities that kept them afloat during even the most dire of situations this season.
Over the four-game streak, the Penguins have given up an average of 1.85 goals against when factoring in overtime. If you only count the three games that Fleury started during the streak, the number drops into the fractional range. They've been that good on defense, and so has Fleury, a player whose turnaround since the start of the season has been so radical that it no longer seems ridiculous to insert him into the Vezina Trophy conversation.
He won't win it, of course, thanks to his beyond-awful start. But he now deserves a mention and, compared to where he was a year ago, that's some serious progress.
If you want to pull a concrete positive from the shootout victories, it should be the simple fact that the Penguins aren't losing. Especially on the road. The Pens have gone into very difficult places to play, like Detroit and Philadelphia, and held their own, giving just as good as they've taken. In the playoffs, though, they'll need to give a little more.
But where they looked like sitting ducks in February, by late March the Penguins have become a scary team once again. Maybe not a Stanley Cup contender, but definitely a team that no one will look forward to facing in the first round.