Defining times for Pens

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:54 AM ET

TORONTO -- In another 48 hours or so, once a victory or loss by the Steelers in the Super Bowl is thoroughly dissected, the sports-crazy masses of Pittsburgh can gradually return their attention to hockey.

And the Penguins intend to be ready to give the Iron City faithful reason to stick around through what could be a desperate playoff push.

In town to face the Maple Leafs tonight at the Air Canada Centre, the Pens are hoping to get on a meaningful run that will help erase what has been an underachieving season.

You would have gotten long odds if you would have wagered the Stanley Cup finalists would be all out just to make the top eight in the Eastern Conference.

And it's hard to fathom how a team with the league's top two scorers (Evgeni Malkin, 71 points, and Sidney Crosby, 64) could be in this situation.

But prior to last night's game in New Jersey, the Pens were parked in 10th, albeit just two points shy of the Florida Panthers for the final playoff spot in the East.

"We know what we have to do, we just have to execute," Pens forward Pascal Dupuis said this week.

"It's an old cliche, but this is where you separate the men from the boys. It's a push for a playoff spot. We know we haven't played our best hockey, and we have to start doing it now."

At least they are showing signs.

After battling the Rangers to a 1-1 draw through 40 minutes Wednesday, the Pens exploded in the third for a 6-2 win at Mellon Arena.

Crosby, whose wonky knee kept him out of the All-Star Game, had a goal and three assists as the Pens won for the third time in four games.

While that scoring outburst came at the most opportune time, the Penguins believe if they are to be successful, the answer is at the other end of the ice.

Only seven teams have given up more than the Pens' 148 goals, which has become a point of emphasis with coach Michel Therrien.

Lately though, things are looking up.

Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is 3-1-0 in his past four games prior to last night with a 1.26 goals-against average and .961 save percentage.

"I like the way we have played lately," Therrien said prior to last night's game against the Devils.

"It's important for us to stay focused about the way we play."

There are other positive signs as the injury bug that has plagued the Pens is starting to clear up.

Defenceman Brooks Orpik, who was sidelined for a handful of games, was back last night.

And the big news was offensive defenceman Sergei Gonchar, who has missed the entire season with a shoulder injury, accompanied the Pens on the current road trip and reportedly is eyeing a possible mid-February return.

As for tonight, Matt Cooke will be back in the lineup against the Leafs after serving a two-game suspension and could bump Dupuis off the Pens' top line, rejoining his pre all-star break mates, Malkin and Crosby. The latter said his knee was functioning at 80% efficiency against the Rangers.


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