February 07, 2015

Looking back at a season-opening three-game losing streak, Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Johnston can understand why a team that seemed primed for an offensive onslaught this season struggled.

New players were getting used to a new environment and mainstays were acclimating to new teammates. Heading into Wednesday night's visit to Vancouver, there's no longer a need to provide reasons for failure.

The Penguins (7-4-0) have won seven of eight since with a shot at their first five-game winning streak since a seven-game run from exactly this time last year, though the Canucks (6-2-4) also seem to be turning things around.

Pittsburgh remained hot with Friday's 4-0 win in Toronto, its largest margin of victory this season and second straight game with four goals after failing to hit that point through nine games.

Newcomers Matt Cullen and Eric Fehr each scored their first with the Penguins and added an assist, and Patric Hornqvist scored in a second straight game after going without a goal through nine games.

"We had quite a few new players in the group. Every line was changed and every defense pair was different from the way we ended the season last year," Johnston told the team's official website. "I think the chemistry of the group is starting to come right now. ... Guys know their roles and know how they need to contribute. Our depth is really good in a lot of areas."

Marc-Andre Fleury wasn't bad on the season-opening skid as the team scored three goals, but he's been better since with two shutouts, a 1.29 goals-against average and .955 save percentage over a 6-1-0 span. He's also won four straight against Vancouver, though he's allowed 10 goals in the last three.

Special teams have also trended in the right direction with the penalty kill going 23 of 24 in the last eight games, while the power play is beginning to come around with a 2 for 4 mark in the last two after starting 2 for 31. Still, Fleury isn't making any bold statements.

"It was one of our better games in the past weeks," Fleury said after making 21 saves against Toronto. "From start to finish, our penalty kill, our power play looked good. I felt like our four lines contributed, did well. I felt pretty confident in (Friday's) game."

Vancouver has also displayed an impressive penalty kill, thwarting 90.6 percent of power plays for the season. The Canucks are 9 for 9 over a 3-0-1 span, which has coincided with their best offense of the season. After Monday's 4-1 home win over Philadelphia, they've averaged four goals over the span after reaching that level once through eight games.

Jake Virtanen scored his first NHL goal the day after the club announced he and fellow 19-year-old rookie Jared McCann would remain with the club beyond the nine-game mark, triggering the first year of their entry-level contracts.

McCann leads the team with five goals in 10 games, and coach Willie Desjardins thinks the feeling of no longer needing to audition could help.

"If I were those guys, I think I would feel a little bit more relaxed, but at the same time, in this league every shift there's pressure," Desjardins said. "If you have a bad shift, we're in trouble."

The Canucks won both meetings last season with an 8-0 scoring advantage after shutting out Pittsburgh once in their previous 108 all-time meetings. Ryan Miller earned the shutout in the game in Vancouver, but the 3.15 GAA he has in 26 games against Pittsburgh is his fourth highest.

At home, Miller started the season 0-2-3 with a 2.96 GAA, but he's since beaten Montreal and the Flyers with two goals allowed on 54 shots.

Brandon Sutter, traded from Pittsburgh to Vancouver in a three-player deal in July, has three goals and four assists so far with his new team, while Nick Bonino has two goals and an assist for the Penguins.

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