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March 13, 2015
by Jason Mackey


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Postgame: Penguins 6, Oilers 4

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Mike Johnston didn’t mince words.

Whether it was Derrick Pouliot, Steve Downie or his team’s performance during a 6-4 win over the Edmonton Oilers at Consol Energy Center on Thursday, the Penguins head coach said what was on his mind postgame.

“I didn’t like the game tonight, for sure,” Johnston said. “I didn’t like a lot of parts of the game. Certainly individuals I thought were really casual.”

Then again, saying you didn’t like something when that something was squandering a 4-0 lead to the second-worst team in the NHL isn’t exactly taking a gigantic leap.

The Oilers stink, and the Penguins nearly blew this one.

A big reason could have been Pouliot, who followed his best game as a pro Monday in San Jose with easily his worst one.

Johnston, remember, coached Pouliot in junior. Here’s his answer when Trib Total Media’s Rob Rossi asked about how to build off of this one with the young defenseman.

“I do know him well, so I know how to handle him. Usually with players like that, you have to be careful at this level because the reason he plays well is because he plays with confidence. You don’t want him to lose his confidence, but he has to recognize consequences in his game.

“Tonight, where he got himself into trouble was when there were people around him; all he had to do was move the puck, punch it away and get it beyond the traffic. He didn’t do that, and that’s where Derrick gets himself into trouble.

“For him it’s a learning experience. I talked to Gary (Agnew) on the bench. We sat him for a few shifts, and we threw him back out into the action. I think that’s the only way to really develop some young players — to make sure they understand what you’re saying, then you allow them an opportunity to try and correct it.”

Another who drew Johnston’s wrath was Downie, whose penchant for taking third-period penalties has frustrated management. Now, add the head coach to the list after Downie was called for hooking at 3:40 of the third, and Benoit Pouliot scored at 4:51 to pull the Oilers to 4-3.

Downie has taken five minor penalties over his past eight games.

“The Downie penalty … ‘Downs’ has to get back to where he was in not taking penalties,” Johnston said. “He took two the other night. The one tonight in the offensive zone, you can’t take a penalty in the offensive zone and give the other team a chance at that time in the game.”

A few other tidbits:

=Downie finished with a goal and an assist for his eighth multi-point game of the season.

=Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist and David Perron combined for seven points and a plus-6 rating. Evgeni Malkin, Blake Comeau and Chris Kunitz totaled one assist and were a minus-3.

=Despite four goals against, Kris Letang was a plus-2, Paul Martin a plus-3. Letang is plus or even in 11 straight, Martin the same in 10 of 11. Crazy stuff.

=Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 25 of 29 shots to improve to 8-3-2 over his past 13 starts.

That’s it for me. Club practices at noon at Southpointe. See yinz there.

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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March 12, 2015
by Jason Mackey


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Pregame: Penguins vs. Oilers, 7 p.m.

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The Penguins sounded a bit like car salesmen Thursday morning.

Be wary of Edmonton. The Oilers are a tough opponent. Their last handful of games were close. They even had leads.

Perhaps the only realistic assessment was this: The Penguins (38-18-10, 86 points) need to be wary of playing the Oilers (18-38-11, 47 points) on Thursday at Consol Energy Center because it’s the first game back after a long road trip.

“Coming back from a four-game road trip out west, we can’t get caught sleeping,” forward David Perron said.

Edmonton, with the second-lowest point total in the NHL, is not very good. Let’s not kid ourselves. The Oilers’ power play is 25th in the league at 16.2 percent. Their penalty kill is worse – 27th at 77.7 percent.

They’re 2-6-2 in their past 10 and are 0-4-1 in their past five. They average 2.19 goals per game, 28th the league. They have a player – Nail Yakupov – who is actually a minus-33.

But …

“You take a look at the standings and you see they’re kind of buried, but at the same time, they do have some upper-end talent that can burn you if you’re not on the ball and not paying attention,” defenseman Rob Scuderi said. “I think we really have to focus on ourselves tonight. It’s not so much about Edmonton as it is about ourselves. If we do the things we need to do, we’re going to give ourselves a great chance to win the game.”

The Penguins have certainly handled the Oilers of late. Edmonton has one win here in 22 years. They’re 6-0-2 in their last eight against Edmonton, winners of three in a row at home.

Sidney Crosby has 1-5—6 in his last three games against Edmonton. Marc-Andre Fleury is coming off a 22-save shutout against the Oilers on Feb. 4.

(Since then, by the way, Fleury is 7-3-2 over his past dozen starts, with a 1.41 GAA, zero games with more than three goals allowed, nine with two or fewer and three shutouts. Just ridiculous stuff.)

“This Edmonton team I’ve played a lot over the past couple years,” defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. “While they haven’t done all that well in the standings, they are a dangerous team. They have so much skill, and they’re not scared to make plays. We need to be ready for them tonight.”

Five-on-five, the Penguins have been really good lately. They have a plus-151 differential in five-on-five shot attempts in close situations, the fourth-best figure in the league.

Their penalty kill also went 10 for 11 during the most recent road trip west, against the Avalanche, Ducks, Kings and Sharks. The key – in this humble opinion, anyway – will be igniting a power play that hasn’t scored in four games since going 3 for 6 against Columbus on March 1.

“It seems like we’ve gone up and down,” coach Mike Johnston said. “I thought on the road trip, though, our power play was dangerous. We just didn’t convert. Did we get enough shots? Not from the point. I thought we did do a lot of good things on the power play.”

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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March 6, 2015
by Jason Mackey


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Penguins Roundtable link

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I joined Ken Laird and Josh Yohe (live from Honda Center) to tackle several issues pertaining to the Pens. Here’s the link to the podcast.

The top line, the trade deadline, Simon Despres, Ben Lovejoy, the defense pairs … all were topics. Also this West Coast swing, potential playoff matchups and who else the Penguins thought about at the deadline.

Hope you can listen. Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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March 2, 2015
by Jason Mackey


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Postgame: Penguins 5, Blue Jackets 3

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Defenseman Derrick Pouliot and forward Daniel Winnik are Penguins’ youngest and newest players, respectively.

Both were solid during a 5-3 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Sunday at Consol Energy Center.

Pouliot scored his second goal of the season, going top-shelf with a Patric Hornqvist rebound on the power play, and Winnik set up linemate Steve Downie for a goal in the third period.

“I thought sometimes I was a little tentative and unsure of where to be on the ice,” said Winnik, who played 13:29, including 2:23 shorthanded, and finished with one hit, one giveaway and no shot attempts. “But that’s pretty typical, to get used to the new system and the guys I’m playing with.”

Pouliot, I thought, was superb, their best player at times. So did fellow beat man Josh Yohe.

Pouliot is trying to earn a postseason job and may have just done that by playing a strong puck-possession style, skating with a lot of confidence.

The 21-year-old finished with seven shot attempts, six on goal and played 18:25.

“He had the puck a lot,” coach Mike Johnston said. “If you look at puck-possession time, he may have had the puck as much as anybody on our team.

“That’s the way he is as a player. He can jump into holes, find those holes, get the puck and start to move with it. Those types of players, they put the other team back, and they don’t force you to have to defend as much because you escape your zone so quick.”

I asked Pouliot afterward whether this was the best game’s played as a pro.

The answer was telling.

“I think it’s getting up there,” Pouliot said. “I think I still have another gear or two, but I’m definitely feeling more comfortable and back to my normal self.”

Other observations from this one:

=The Blue Jackets miss Brandon Dubinsky. Like, a lot. Not only because he becomes a pain in Sidney Crosby’s backside – Crosby finished with two secondary assists – but his energy is something that Columbus thrives on.

Dubinsky suffered a concussion Thursday and is out indefinitely.

“When you take a guy like that out of your lineup, you’re going to miss something,” Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards said. “We’ve talked about it before, when he’s been out of the lineup, the emotion that he brings, when he plays, the tenacity that he brings, a lot of times that becomes contagious to the group.”

=The Penguins have won four in a row and have a plus-9 goal differential (18-9) during that stretch. In their past 12 games, they’re 8-3-1. Their suddenly resurgent power play is 6 for 18 (33.3 percent) during the winning streak.

=They finished with 41 shots – the fifth time this season they’ve hit the 40-mark – which was their most since tallying 43 Jan. 30 at New Jersey.

=The Penguins practice Monday (11:30 a.m.) and Tuesday (10 a.m.) at Southpointe before flying to Colorado, where they play the Avalanche on Wednesday.

The West Coast swing – Colorado, Anaheim, Los Angeles and Anaheim – runs Wednesday through next Monday. Yohe will have you covered. (If we’re lucky, we’ll convince Josh to stop in Haight-Ashbury and soak in the scene.)

“It’s nice we have a couple days of practice now,” Winnik said. “I think we’ll get used to each other a little more. We have four games in the (next seven days).”

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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February 27, 2015
by Jason Mackey


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Pens Roundtable link

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Were the Penguins in on Jaromir Jagr? What about Jordan Staal? What does the Daniel Winnik deal mean? Why was Josh Yohe snooping under cars in the parking lot?

These are all questions you can find out answers to by listening to our weekly Pens Roundtable on TribLive Radio.

Here’s a link to the show. If you see Rossi, give him a hug from us.

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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February 25, 2015
by Jason Mackey


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Pregame: Penguins at Capitals, 8 p.m.

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WASHINGTON — The Penguins’ power play has scored in two consecutive games, something that hasn’t happened since scoring in four straight since Jan. 10-18.

Such success breeds confidence, forward David Perron said.

“In St. Louis, we could have almost gone 3 for 3,” Perron said. “Ended up being 1 for 3. … Obviously when they go in, you start feeling it a little bit more. Just like any five-on-five game, when goals are going in, you feel good about yourself. I think it’s the same thing for the power play.

“The power play was going fine until (Kris Letang) got hurt, (Sidney Crosby) missed time, (Evgeni Malkin) missed time, (Patric Hornqvist) came back. A lot of things were moving around. Now that we have almost everyone back, it’s obviously nice. Hopefully we can roll with that.”

Which they will try to do tonight against the Washington Capitals, who have successfully killed all 11 Penguins power plays over the first three games of the season series.

“We’ve done a good job the last couple games of doing some really good things,” forward Blake Comeau said following an optional gameday skate Wednesday at Verizon Center. “I think everyone in this locker room is looking for consistency. Playing the right way. That’s basically it. We’re basically just trying to climb in the standings, get as high as we can and be playing some really good hockey come playoff time.”

That doesn’t, apparently, include specifically seeking out Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin following his two-handed whack of Letang in the last meeting between these two clubs.

Coach Mike Johnston stressed that the issue is in the past, that the Penguins need to build on what they did during a 3-1 loss on Feb. 17 before allowing a five-on-three goal late.

“This is a different game, and we have to be able to come in here and play the right way,” Johnston said. “Play the type of game that we need to play. I thought we made good strides last game as far as playing against Washington. I really liked our game. It came down to the final few minutes with a power-play goal for them, but I still liked our game overall.

“We have to play a very similar game. For me, a lot of lose puck battles will be key tonight.”

Expect defenseman Christian Ehrhoff to return from a 12-game absence after suffering concussion-like symptoms when his head hit the Verizon Center ice in a game on Jan. 28.

While he was out, Ehrhoff said he kept a close eye on the Penguins’ recent progress and hopes to keep it going tonight.

“I think we’re headed in a good direction,” Ehrhoff said. “The last couple games where really good especially against a great team like St. Louis. I thought we played one of our best games there. I’m happy to jump in and hopefully I can do my part to get it going.”

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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February 23, 2015
by Jason Mackey


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Postgame: Penguins 5, Panthers 1

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It’s Oscar Night, so let’s roll that way.

Best play went to Evgeni Malkin. His goal at 19:33 of the second gave the Penguins a 2-0 lead after 20 minutes where they really didn’t play all that well. Turned the game, in my opinion. Kicked Florida in the collective gut.

But the best player was most definitely Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. My goodness. Fleury stopped 34 of 35 shots Sunday and has turned aside 113 of 118 in three meetings with the Panthers this season.

“Fleury was the difference the first part of the game,” Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said.

“At times tonight, I thought Flower was our best player,” coach Mike Johnston countered.

Fleury has allowed two or fewer goals in seven straight starts. The Penguins are 23-2-2 when he allows two or fewer.

On Sunday, Fleury stopped all 16 shots he faced in the opening period, and that seemed to set the tone for the rest of the game.

“Felt pretty good,” said Fleury, who’s now 27-13-6 on the season with a 2.16 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage. “(Stopped) a few shots at the beginning right away. It was good to get into it. Felt pretty good.”

So did the Penguins after Malkin scored what turned out to be the game-winner.

Malkin picked up a puck in the neutral zone, won a footrace with Panthers defenseman Dmitry Kulikov and backhanded a shot five-hole past Al Montoya. He later added 24th of the season – also on a backhander – to produce his first multi-goal game since Dec. 6.

Paul Martin scored at 19 seconds of the third to end this one early.

“That second goal was a killer for us,” Gallant said. “Then they get the third goal the first shift of the third period. That was really tough.”

“You always talk about it and say, ‘Let’s move on.’ ” Gallant added. “It obviously had an effect.”

Couple other notes from this one:

=The Penguins are 23-3-1 when scoring on the power play

=They’ve allowed two or fewer goals in seven of their past 10 games

=Kris Letang contributed an assist and current has 47 points – tied with Calgary’s Mark Giordano for the NHL lead among defensemen. Letang has 24 points in his past 22 games.

Club is off Monday. Not giving away anything, but you’re going to want to pick up a copy of Tuesday’s Trib. Both Josh Yohe and I have stories you will definitely want to read.

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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February 21, 2015
by Jason Mackey


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Mackey: Big deals coming? Maybe.

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“We’re going to be watching the next two games as closely as we’ve watched any games this year.”

That was how one member of the Penguins front office described the team’s upcoming back-to-back set Saturday at St. Louis and at home Sunday against Florida.

We’re there.

Nobody who has a hand in personnel decisions is happy. This much was made very clear to me on Friday.

General manager Jim Rutherford, I learned, did not travel with the team. Instead, he spent the day Friday on the phone, exploring various trade angles.

Nothing is imminent, but I’m told Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury are the only names not in play.

Current players have been made aware of this displeasure, that a significant trade or two could easily happen if the effort put forth Thursday against Columbus — and several times before — is replicated.

In my story for Saturday’s Trib, I explore the significance of these two games, which are certainly unlike any of the other 16 back-to-back sets on the Penguins’ schedule.

It’s ironic, too, given that the Penguins face a get-well opportunity against non-Metropolitan Division opponents, a group of teams they’ve actually fared well against this season.

Evgeni Malkin talked yesterday. To me, that’s a testament to where the urgency is with this group. Here’s a sampling of what he said, which will appear in the story Saturday.

“When you (lose a) couple games and (you don’t) play (well), everyone (gets) nervous,” Malkin said. “Coaches, players, organization, we (get) nervous. It’s not bad, but it’s not good.

“We know we (can bounce) back. I believe this team (includes) good guys, good players. (We) just (need to) support each other. Relax. We’ll be back.”

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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February 20, 2015
by Jason Mackey


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Postgame: Blue Jackets 2, Penguins 1

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Sidney Crosby hardly ever fights.

Seven times in his career. Six in the regular season, once in the playoffs. Three times since Nov. 3, 2010.

Yet there was Crosby, dropping the gloves Thursday in the second period of a 2-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets at Consol Energy Center, taking on Brandon Dubinsky.

I asked Crosby what triggered the fight, and he didn’t offer much.

“Nothing really,” Crosby said. “It wasn’t much of a fight anyway.”

Dubinsky was a bit more expansive, telling our Josh Yohe:

“I hit him in the corner. He tried to pulled me down. I was holding on to him. We both got up. He dropped his gloves. I obliged and dropped mine. He’s a competitor. Any chance you get a chance to trade off and take one of the best in the world to the box for five minutes, I’ll take it.”

Coach Mike Johnston said it was an “emotional” fight, the kind that happens between star players, not goons.

He also sounded less than interested in having one of his two franchise centers do such a thing.

“On occasion,” Johnston answered when Josh asked him if he was OK having his captain fight. “Those types of fights, they’re emotional fights. When top players go at each other in the game or the top player drops his gloves, it’s an emotional fight. Sometimes the other ones are a little bit more, where two guys bang together, they’re pretty tough guys, and they go at it.

“Sid showing that type of emotion, I think that’s positive. I wasn’t here for it, but I know what happened in the playoff series (in 2013-14). They had a long battle in that playoff series, Dubinsky and Sid. I think that was part of the carryover (Thursday).”

I wrote for Friday’s print product about the Penguins’ failure to elevate their game following Crosby’s fight and a key, five-on-three penalty kill late — things that should have theoretically given them some momentum. Enough to finally score on the power play, you would figure.

But that didn’t happen.

The Penguins continue to be maddeningly inconsistent. Let’s look at their past 10 games.

2/19 vs. Blue Jackets, 2-1 L (shots even)
2/17 vs. Capitals, 3-1 L (shots even)
2/15 at Blackhawks, 2-1 L (SO) (plus-5 shots)
2/12 at Senators, 5-4 W (SO) (minus-4 shots)
2/11 vs. Red Wings, 4-1 W (minus-3 shots)
2/7 at Canucks, 5-0 L (plus-4 shots)
2/6 at Flames, 4-0 W (plus-9 shots)
2/4 at Oilers, 2-0 W (plus-4 shots)
2/1 vs. Predators, 4-0 L (minus-3 shots)
1/30 at Devils, 2-1 W (OT) (plus-29 shots)

Grading simply pass or fail, here’s what my report card would like, starting with the Devils game and working forward: pass, fail, pass, pass, fail, pass, fail, pass, fail, fail.

Dead even, of course.

Chris Kunitz had three assists in Calgary and the game-tying goal late against New Jersey. In the other eight games? One assist.

Evgeni Malkin has three goals but no assists in the eight games since he returned from a groin injury. Crosby has seven points in those games and four goals, but the goals have been confined to two games.

The Penguins have been outscored 9-4 in their past 10 third periods.

“I think you have to look inside yourself and find a different level,” defenseman Rob Scuderi said. “There are certain things, whether they are mental or physical mistakes, that you just can’t make late in games. It takes each guy in here figuring that out.”

Some other nuggets from Thursday:

=Beau Bennett struggled. He was demoted to the fourth line for a stretch in the first period and played just 9:53.

=Kris Letang played 28:09. In a game that ended in regulation, mind you. That’s the 12th consecutive game Letang has led the Penguins in ice time, and this one wasn’t even close. Paul Martin was second at 21:10.

=Malkin scored the Penguins’ lone goal, his 22nd of the season. He has never NOT scored against Columbus. In nine games, he has 4-7–11.

Club practices at Southpointe on Friday. at 11:30 a.m. Talk you from there.

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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February 19, 2015
by Jason Mackey


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Pregame: Penguins vs. Blue Jackets, 7 p.m.

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Don’t be fooled by the Blue Jackets’ record or their place in the standings. Columbus is a solid hockey team, one the Penguins know well and one they’ll try to get right against tonight at 7 at Consol Energy Center.

“They’re a tough team to play against,” Penguins defenseman Kris Letang said. “They’re fast. They work really hard. They have some skill, and their defensemen are active. Their record does not indicate the way they play. It’s going to be a tough battle again.”

The Blue Jackets are 25-27-3 and have 53 points — 20 shy the Penguins (32-16-9). They’re tied for sixth place in the Metropolitan Division and are not exactly planning for the third playoff appearance in franchise history.

But they do have two quality scorers in Ryan Johansen (21-31–52) and Nick Foligno (22-30–52), and the Blue Jackets have found an offensive groove of late, scoring 26 goals over their past six games for an average of 4.3 per contest.

“Columbus is a hard-working team, very disciplined in their structure,” Penguins coach Mike Johnston said. “They play a gritty game, much like they did against the Penguins last year in the playoffs.”

Johnston also praised the Blue Jackets’ forwards. He didn’t name names, but it’s likely he was talking about the trio of Brandon Dubinsky (3-2–5), Matt Calvert (2-1–3) and Cam Atkinson (2-1–3), who have combined for 7-4–11 since being put together as a line three games ago.

“As they’re getting healthy now, they have some pretty good balance in their forward lines,” Johnston said. “They’ve got some grit. They’ve got some skill. I like their balance in their group of forwards.”

Why aren’t the Blue Jackets better?

The beginning of the season — and injuries — did them in. They’ve lost an NHL-high 353 man-games to injury. And, after opening with wins in four of six, the Blue Jackets endured a 2-13-2 funk from Oct. 24-Nov. 29.

They rebounded by going 12-2-1 from Dec. 1-Jan. 6, but the damage was done.

Other stuff to watch out for tonight:

=The Penguins’ power play is 0 for 18 over its past eight games. Without a goal tonight, they will officially be in the worst power-play funk of Sidney Crosby’s career.

=The penalty kill has hit the skids. The Penguins are tied for fifth in the league at 85.1 percent, but they’ve allowed a power-play goal in 10 of their past 15 games, killing just 35 of 47 penalties (74.5 percent) during that stretch.

=Crosby has a 10-game point streak against Columbus, during which he has 5-7–12. Evgeni Malkin has played eight games against the Blue Jackets and has scored in all of them, total of 3-7–10. Marc-Andre Fleury has won three straight starts against Columbus.

Team-wise, the Penguins are 10-1-2 against the Blue Jackets since Oct. 21, 2006, and they wouldn’t mind falling back on history given their recent struggles against Metropolitan Division teams.

“We’ve talked about that a lot,” Crosby said of the Penguins’ record (7-10-4) against division foes. “It’s an area we need to improve upon. For whatever reason, we haven’t found a way to be successful.

“Consistency in our game is important. We’ve had a few games where we didn’t give ourselves a chance against division opponents. I think lately we’ve been playing a little bit better, so hopefully that translates into more wins.”

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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