Maybe it was darkest before the dawn.
The Penguins appeared to hit – certainly scrape, at least – rock bottom during the first period of a 4-3 home loss to the Flyers on Sunday afternoon.
However, they showed stronger over the final two periods.
Defenseman Matt Niskanen has emerged as a public voice for this group, and he made a simple point after this loss.
“(The Flyers) have been playing playoff hockey for about two months,” Niskanen said. “We have to get there.”
The Penguins have 15 games before the playoff open, and for most of Sunday it appeared there was little reason for optimism that a mostly remarkable regular season, given all the injuries, would translate into postseason success.
Then, in about a minute, coach Dan Bylsma declared a couple of skilled players ready for full practices.
Right winger Beau Bennett – out since Nov. 22 with an injured right wrist – was expected to return to regular activity this week.
Defenseman Kris Letang – about six weeks removed from a stroke – was not.
Despite never officially ruling him out, the Penguins – from management to players – had not planned for Letang to play again this season.
That he might is not insignificant, and not just because Letang can bring a rarefied level of skill to the back end.
The Penguins are also down Paul Martin, and they are not sure if he will be ready for the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs. He is out with a broken right hand.
Letang and Martin are inarguably the Penguins’ two top defensemen, and one statistic most shows their worth.
In 19 games this season with Letang and Martin in the lineup, the Penguins are a plus-101 in shot differential.
In the last nine games without both in the lineup, the Penguins have a minus-72 in shot differential.
The latest on Letang: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5777626-74/letang-penguins-stroke#axzz2wAGWeYHr
>> Josh Yohe has the details – including a shocking stat – on the Penguins’ 4-3 loss to the Flyers on Sunday: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/pensgalleries/5740576-74/penguins-flyers-sunday
There were a few curious occurrences, starting with Marc-Andre Fleury taking the crease even though he had played the day before at Philadelphia.
The guess here is that coach Dan Bylsma anticipated another sketchy start from the Penguins, and figured Fleury was the best option to prevent the Flyers from ending the contest early. (He did.) Also, if Bylsma had to pull Fleury – and he did – it could spark something from a group that looked listless often in a loss Saturday.
The other strange happening was captain Sidney Crosby twice removing himself early while the Penguins were trailing but working on the power play. Crosby made that call, not Bylsma.
Finally, the quick hook for the first power-play unit with the Penguins down by a goal near the midpoint of the final period – well, certainly that decision by Bylsma did not look good when the second unit allowed a shorthanded goal to Flyers winger Matt Read.
>> Chris Adamski wraps up Sunday with some short and sweet notes: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5740586-74/games-power-bennett#axzz2wAGWeYHr
>> After a weekend sweep, the Flyers are now second in the Metropolitan Division. They won’t catch the Penguins, but… hey, maybe getting the Flyers out of the wild-care option is actually the Penguins’ best play?
>> Man-games lost Watch: 413. Just stupid, right?
Be EXCELLENT to each other,