When the Penguins took on the Hershey Bears on Jan. 11, they found themselves in 12th place in the Eastern Conference - three points out of a playoff spot.
With a record of 15-17-2-1, the Penguins were also three points out of last place in the conference.
Fast forward almost four months later, and the Penguins find themselves in a much better place.
Since Jan. 11, the Penguins have won 20 of their last 31 games to catapult themselves up in the standings.
“It’s been that kind of a season,” said defenseman Alex Grant. “Some lulls, some great points. But with our play lately, the way you see guys elevating their games and stepping up, it just shows you that we’re a team that is built for the playoffs.”
After Saturday’s 4-0 win over an Albany Devils team fighting to earn a postseason spot, the Penguins moved ahead of idle Portland by a point to claim the fifth spot in the conference. Head coach John Hynes said his team knows it is close to clinching a postseason spot, but they aren’t taking it for granted.
“This stretch of games is where teams separate and make hard pushes. We like our seeding, but nothing guaranteed,” Hynes said. “We have to play a certain way to get in, and if you’re winning then your game is in a good spot.”
It’s a spot they claimed with conviction on Saturday by dominating the lifeless Devils right from the start.
Chad Kolarik got things started with a power play goal just 48 seconds into the first period. The goal was Kolarik’s team-leading 26th of the season and 10th as a Penguin since coming over via a trade in January.
While Albany struggled to establish anything in the offensive zone, the Penguins struck again with 11 seconds remaining in the period, thanks to a Trevor Smith wrist shot that also came on the power play.
Smith’s goal, his 22nd of the season, made it 2-0 as the Penguins outshot the Devils 17-1, marking the third time this season they held an opponent to a single shot in a period.
The efficient play carried over into the second period. While the Penguins didn’t score, they limited the Devils to eight shots and carried a 31-9 shot advantage after two frames.
The Penguins added to their lead in the third period with yet another power play goal courtesy of a Grant shot from the slot to make it 3-0.
The Penguins power play finished 3-for-8 on the night, the third time this season they’ve scored three man advantage goals.
Five minutes later Paul Thompson extended the lead to 4-0 when he shoveled home a rebound in front for his second goal in two games.
While the offense was impressive, the defense was just as stellar, limiting Albany to a pair of shots in the third period and 11 in the game - the lowest total this season for a Penguins’ opponent. It also marked Jeff Zatkoff’s fourth shutout of the season while lowering his league-leading goals against average to 1.95.
“Tonight was one of our better efforts and we’ve been playing well,” Grant said. “Even in games where we don’t have our best effort we’ve managed to come out with a win or force overtime. That’s want you want to do going down the stretch - playing your best hockey going into the playoffs.”
Albany0 0 0 — 0
Penguins 2 0 2 — 4
First Period: Scoring – 1. WBS, Chad Kolarik 26 (Smith, Holzapfel) power play :48. 2. WBS, Trevor Smith 22 (Grant, Holzapfel) power play 19:49. Penalties – ALB, Urbom (holding) :19; WBS, Farnham (diving) 1:20; ALB, bench – served by Pesonen (too many men) 3:13; WBS, Mormina (roughing) 8:05; ALB, Pesonen (tripping) 14:38; ALB, Leach (high-sticking) 16:34; ALB, DeSimone (closing hand on puck) 19:01.
Second Period: Scoring – None. Penalties – WBS, Smith (slashing) 2:00; ALB, Janssen (roughing) 8:42; ALB, McPherson (cross-checking) 10:35; ALB, Sestito (unsportsmanlike conduct) 18:38; WBS, Holzapfel (unsportsmanlike conduct) 18:38.
Third Period: Scoring – 3. Alex Grant 5 (Kolarik, Reese) power play 11:00. 4. WBS, Paul Thompson 17 (Megna, Gibbons) 15:13. Penalties – WBS, Mormina (hooking) 5:19; ALB, Sestito (unsportsmanlike conduct) 8:59; WBS, Smith (roughing) 8:59; ALB, Leach (holding) 10:07.
Shots on goal: Albany – 1-8-2-11. Penguins – 17-14-3-34
Power-play Opportunities: Albany – 0 of 4. Penguins – 3 of 8
Goaltenders: Albany – Jeff Frazee 7-12-5 (30 saves – 34 shots). Penguins – Jeff Zatkoff 25-19-0 (11-11)