As Pittsburgh Penguins continue to roll, their main goal is No. 4 in East

March, 20, 2009

It turns out the 2008 Stanley Cup finalists have some fight left in them, and then some.

The Pittsburgh Penguins can take sole possession of fourth place in the Eastern Conference with a win Friday night against the visiting Los Angeles Kings combined with a loss by the Philadelphia Flyers at the Buffalo Sabres.

Yes, yes, we know, Flyers fans ... your team has three games in hand, so save the message-board missiles. But still, five weeks ago, just the notion of the Penguins being in fourth place in the conference would have had you thrown out of Shales Café in Pittsburgh (a popular hangout for hardcore Pens fans).

Five weeks ago, the team was 10th in the conference, just seven months after falling two wins short of a Stanley Cup title. The club was really in the dumps after an embarrassing 6-2 loss at lowly Toronto on Feb. 14, which triggered the firing of coach Michel Therrien.

Since then? How about an 11-1-3 record and a rocket charge up the Eastern Conference standings (which also might tell you that the East continues to show its mediocrity. But we digress ... ).

We asked Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury on Thursday to explain the stunning turnaround.

"Even before Michel left, things were starting to go a little better," Fleury told in an interview conducted in French. "We were winning a few more games. But the return of [Sergei] Gonchar helped a lot, so did the trades we made for [Bill] Guerin and [Chris] Kunitz, and we added depth with [Craig] Adams. The coaching change also got the guys going. The new system is different and so far it's working quite well."

Getting Gonchar back has been a monumental factor. He was fourth in Norris Trophy voting last season and first on the team in minutes per game; the team simply couldn't cope with his loss from October to February. From the transition game to defensive matchups against the other teams' top forwards to, of course, special teams, "Gonch" was sorely missed and warmly greeted upon his return. He has 14 points (6 goals, 8 assists) in 15 games and is a plus-4 while averaging more than 25 minutes a night.

"Yes, yes, yes," Fleury said when asked whether the team was thrilled to have Gonchar back. "He's a veteran and he's so calm on the ice. When he's got the puck, you know it won't be a turnover. And on the power play, he's got good vision, sees the open man and has a great slap shot. He's already produced a lot on the power play."

Fleury also is playing his best hockey of the season, sporting a 6-0-2 record in March with a 2.04 goals-against average and .925 save percentage.

"Things are good," the soft-spoken Fleury said. "When we're winning, that's the only thing I care about. The guys in front of me are playing well; we're giving up fewer scoring chances and fewer shots. That makes my job a little easier."

Obviously, Sidney Crosby has been terrific, especially since Guerin and Kunitz arrived, and NHL leading scorer Evgeni Malkin continues to make his Hart Trophy case with a superb season.

The goal now is fourth place in the East. It might not be decided until the final weekend of the regular season, April 11-12, but the Flyers and Penguins face off for the last time this Sunday in Pittsburgh in what is must-watch TV. With the possibility of both teams facing each other in the first round, the fourth seed is paramount.

"Yes, and you saw it last year that it's important to have home-ice advantage," said Fleury, whose team beat the Flyers in the Eastern Conference finals. "With them, it's a big rivalry. They've got a good team. But that's a huge game Sunday given the points at stake."

Win or lose Sunday, the Pens are a different team heading into April. They've got their mojo back.

"It doesn't take much in this game sometimes to regain that confidence," Fleury said. "We're certainly more confident now of our chances to do well come playoff time than we were just a few weeks ago."



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