With wins over the top two teams in the Eastern Conference, the Pittsburgh Penguins appear poised to make the playoffs for the first time since 2000-01. Now, they’ll try to hold off a team just looking to make a return trip to the postseason.
Pittsburgh tries to extend its point streak to seven games when it hosts the Montreal Canadiens on Friday night in the regular season-series finale.
The Penguins are 5-0-1 in their last six games and have won three straight, including a 3-0 victory over Atlantic Division-leading New Jersey on Wednesday night. That win came a night after Pittsburgh (39-21-10) beat Conference-leading Buffalo 5-4 in a shootout.
“It’s awesome, the past two nights,” said Penguins backup goalie Jocelyn Thibault, who made 24 saves Wednesday for his first shutout since Oct. 8, 2003. “I thought we played great (Tuesday) against Buffalo even though it was 5-4, and to come here to New Jersey and shut them out, it’s tremendous.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us, but this is a good start.”
But Montreal (35-30-6) has taken two of three from the Penguins this season, including a 4-3 overtime victory on Feb. 4 that snapped Pittsburgh’s six-game winning streak.
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has been one of the keys to Pittsburgh’s resurgence this season, going 19-3-4 with a 2.70 goals-against average over his last 28 appearances. He’s tied for fifth in the league with 33 wins, and is expected to be back in net Friday despite a 4.45 GAA in six career starts versus the Canadiens - his third-worst mark against any opponent.
Fleury, though, has been tough to beat at Mellon Arena posting a 12-1-2 mark with a 1.88 GAA in his last 15 starts there.
“We are playing good hockey,” said Penguins star Sidney Crosby, who assisted on Jarkko Ruutu’s game-winner Wednesday for his NHL-leading 104th point. “There have been times the past few weeks where we fought our way back or got a good bounce and got two points.
“Now we are playing 60 minutes and getting rewarded for it.”
Crosby has recorded six of his league-leading 75 assists this season against Montreal.
The Canadiens have won back-to-back games following a four-game skid, including a 5-3 victory over the New York Islanders on Tuesday night. Rookie Guillaume Latendresse scored twice, Christopher Higgins had the go-ahead tally and Tomas Plekanec and Michael Ryder each had a goal and an assist for Montreal.
“We know that we have some character players here and we know if everybody works together we have some good chances, and that’s what happened tonight,” said Latendresse, who has four goals in the last three games after going 11 straight without one.
Leading scorer Saku Koivu had an assist Tuesday to snap a stretch of five straight games without a point, but he has been held without one in his last two meetings with Pittsburgh.
Montreal right wing Alexei Kovalev missed Tuesday’s win with vertigo, but returned to practice Wednesday, according to the team’s official Web site.
“I’m feeling a little better, but still a little shaky,” said Kovalev, who’s fourth on the team in scoring with 42 points.