Kovacevic: No turning back for Penguins now


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Jake Guentzel blocks a last-second shot by the Jets' Patrik Laine, Nov. 27 in Winnipeg. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Sorry, but I've OD'd on AB.

So if it's OK with you, I'll just push some loose pucks your way ...

• I'm loving this matchup tonight at PPG Paints Arena: Pittsburgh vs. Winnipeg. Hottest team in hockey against the very best from the NHL's West.

No, there's no attaching any actual importance to it. It's still a Friday night in early January, and these teams don't share a time zone, much less a conference.

Still, there's this ...

It's a tremendous run. It's saved a season, maybe even saved some jobs. It flipped from 4-8-3 beforehand into the 12-2-1 illustrated above. Not to mention the ongoing seven-game winning streak, capped by a perfect three-game trip through St. Louis, St. Paul and New York. That's a resounding success under any circumstance.

The individual facets have been no less uplifting: The star forwards have been stars, with Sidney Crosby accounting for 12 points in the past five games, Phil Kessel 10 in the same span and even Evgeni Malkin finding enough smelling salts for five points in the past four games. Jake Guentzel's climbing into that star forward category. Secondary scoring's now expected, not an act of God. Kris Letang's nothing less than the NHL's best defenseman at the moment. Brian Dumoulin's nearly matching him. And the goaltending, which had been the shortcoming, saw Matt Murray and Casey DeSmith lead the league in cumulative save percentage through December at .939.

Keep right on going with team facets, too: The power play's dominating, currently on an 8-for-10 cruise. The penalty-kill's been near-perfect, conceding one goal on 17 opportunities through the seven-game streak. And the defense has been ... man, how to begin describing this group giving up nine total goals over the streak?

And yet ... I'm not all the way there, you know?

Not even with the awareness that Malkin will be better and Justin Schultz will be back next month.

Let's see more. A lot more.

Sweeping the 25-12-2 Jets sure would bolster the creds. Remember, it was Nov. 27 up in Winnipeg that the Penguins put together their best performance to that point with a 4-3 win, one that had the locker room as fired up as I'd witnessed all winter. "A really good win for all of us" was what Crosby called it there, and it wound up at least setting the stage for the broader recovery:

[caption id="attachment_727191" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Penguins at Jets, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Nov. 27, 2018 - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

Imagine another.

Imagine, with all due respect to the Penguins' streak that began in Washington, beating another elite team for bookends of an eight-game winning streak.

Imagine, then, righting a still-egregious wrong by taking care of the Blackhawks here Sunday night. Then putting down the Panthers, a team that invariably, annoyingly outpaces them, to cap the three-game homestand. Then embarking on another successful trip, this one a five-game monster to Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose, Phoenix and Las Vegas.

Imagine that going into the All-Star break.

Is that greedy?

Of course it is.

But, as Jack Johnson told me that same night in Winnipeg, "We've dug ourselves a hole, and we're going to be paying a price for that all season long now."

Yep. So let's see some goals against the NHL's big, bad Jets, not just against the miserable Blues, the boring Wild and whatever hilarious version of Henrik Lundqvist always shows up to face the Penguins. Let's see a shutdown of Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine. Let's see a physical resiliency to rival Jamie Oleksiak's bounce-right-off collision with Dustin Byfuglien that shook Manitoba to its crust:

And yeah, let's see that goaltending go right on excelling. Because it's all starting there.

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