Matt Murray and the Pittsburgh Penguins face the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday. Photo by Archie Carpenter/UPI | License Photo
It was an NHL-mandated break. It was Christmas, for goodness sakes, and the Pittsburgh Penguins got an extra day with no game Sunday, giving them four full off days.
While none of the Penguins were complaining about the down time, they will need to ensure that it does not serve as a momentum-killer.
Pittsburgh (18-12-6) enters Thursday's home game against the Detroit Red Wings (15-17-6) on an 8-2-1 roll.
"I think there's significance to winning a few in a row here, but also gaining points along the way in a lot of games," Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said in the wake of a 3-0 victory Saturday at Carolina, the Penguins' third straight win.
"As I told the guys in the (locker) room, our guys deserve a lot of credit for how hard they've played and how focused they've been through this stretch. They've played a lot of hockey in a short stretch, and they continued to play hard night in and night out."
Pittsburgh's recent stretch has boosted it into third place in the Metropolitan Division -- back in a playoff spot -- after the team fell to the depths of the Eastern Conference during a dismal November.
"These past three games we've played were pretty tight hockey games. You could tell our mentality was right where it needs to be," said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who has led the charge with 10 goals and 17 assists over the past 20 games.
"We can build off this when we get back."
The Penguins also have also gotten their best stretch of goaltending lately, although questions remain about how they will deploy Matt Murray, who has won two Stanley Cups, and Casey DeSmith. The two have been used in a straight-up rotation recently, with Murray turning in a 39-save shutout against Carolina.
While the Penguins have had a December to remember, the Red Wings are hoping to ditch a malaise after the holidays.
Detroit gave Toronto a strong game Sunday, losing 5-4 in overtime, but that can't hide a 4-6-3 record in December that has dropped the Red Wings to 12th in the Eastern Conference.
"We feel that when we're on our game, we can play with anybody. We've shown that over the course of the year," Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall said, most likely referring to an 8-4-1 record in November.
"But you have to do it every night, not just when you play some teams. The level of urgency and compete have to be there every night."
The Red Wings and Penguins had a nice little rivalry going in the late 2000s, splitting two meetings in the Stanley Cup final and staging some high-intensity regular-season games.
It would help if Detroit can capture that level against Pittsburgh, as with the game at Toronto.
"Sometimes it's a good reminder of the type of game it takes to be successful," Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. "That was a great reminder. We are going on the road ... and play a couple of real good teams (in Pittsburgh and Dallas). We are going to have to play this same style."