Pens peaking at key time

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:22 AM ET

The first thought was that it was a sucker bet, the location being Las Vegas and all.

But there in the sports book at Binion's Gambling Hall, the lights on the digital odds board listed the Pittsburgh Penguins at 75-1 long shots to win the Stanley Cup.

It was the day after the NHL tradeline and yes, at that point the Penguins were just on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff race looking in. But 75-1?

The same team that went to the Cup final a year ago, one which owns the NHL's top two scorers and that now has recorded at least a point in each of its past 10 games?

Well, that prosperous burst has helped the Pens climb to fifth in the conference -- and fifth with a bullet given they still could run down Philadelphia and play host to a first-round playoff series.

With 11 games remaining, they still could slump and miss the post-season, of course. The more likely scenario based on current form, however, is that Sidney Crosby and Co. will head into April as a team no one is going to want to meet in a seven-game series.

Sunday's 6-4 comeback win over the Boston Bruins was the latest big effort for the Pens, who have taken advantage of a confluence of developments to make a late rush toward living up to lofty pre-season predictions.

It all started with a Valentine's date in Toronto, a Feb. 14 loss to the Maple Leafs that got things moving. For starters, it was the first game of the season for defenceman Sergei Gonchar, a much needed offensive leader on the blue line.

Of greater significance, the Pens were so bad and looked so disinterested in a 6-2 loss at the Air Canada Centre that coach Michel Therrien walked the plank the following day.

Interim replacement, Dan Bylsma, has been a no-nonsense, system-oriented coach that has the team looking better by the night in his 10-1-3 career as an NHL head coach.

Next up were deals by general manager Ray Shero that brought Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin to the Iron City, essentially as gift-wrapped wingers for Crosby who, let's face it, had been a brooding and underachieving (by his standards) player at times this season.

There was some thought that Shero might have overpaid for Kunitz when he shipped defenceman Ryan Whitney to Anaheim. But the early returns are it may be the trade of the year.

Kunitz has 12 points in nine games with Pittsburgh -- including a pair of goals and an assist against the Bruins. More importantly, his physical presence has been a tidy complement to Crosby whose three assists Sunday leapfrogged him past Alex Ovechkin and back into second place in the NHL scoring race behind teammate Evgeni Malkin.

Unlike Therrien, who was at times guilty of over emphasizing defence on a team built to score, Bylsma is playing to the strengths on the roster.

"We've just had the mentality that we're going to go faster than teams and forecheck and be tough to play against," Crosby said following yesterday's practice in advance of tonight's home game against the Atlanta Thrashers.

CROSBY HEALTHY

"It's a mentality and I think we're doing a good job of making teams play the way we want to play, really forcing things."

So Crosby is happy, healthy and scoring and the team is confident and winning and the Pens are well positioned to at least finish in the top eight and earn a shot at repeating the run of a year ago.

They can ill afford to stumble, however, given that they are only four points up on the Florida Panthers, which holds down ninth in the Eastern Conference.

For that reason, they won't be listed as Stanley Cup favourites just yet. But odds are we won't be tearing up that 75-1 ticket any time soon, either.

ROB.LONGLEY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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