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|Evgeni Malkin made the proclamation more than two months ago Travis Konecny Jersey , minutes after the Pittsburgh Penguins put together three borderline spectacular periods against San Jose on Jan. 30 to pick up their ninth win in 12 games. ”It’s like we’re back to playoffs for sure,” Malkin said.
It was vintage Malkin, who for over a decade has played the blunt dressing room yin to Sidney Crosby’s ever polite yang.
While predicting a playoff spot for the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions isn’t exactly risky, Malkin’s promise came as the Penguins were coming out of a three-month funk in which they flip-flopped between brilliant and blah.
Reminded of his guarantee on Tuesday – with a 12th straight postseason berth secured – Malkin just smiled. Yeah, maybe he was sending a message to the rest of the guys in the room that day that the malaise needed to go.
”Like we talk a lot about this year, like everyone’s `Wait, like what’s going on?”’ Malkin said. ”We lost couple good players but we’re still great.”
They just didn’t always play like it during the first half of the season. While doing his best to avoid using the word ”hangover,” Crosby admitted the Penguins may have suffered from a bit of selective amnesia last fall when they opened the season trying to become the first franchise in 35 years to win three straight titles.
”When you play a couple seasons of important games like that, you come back and you might not have that urgency or you only remember May and June when everything is great and your team is firing on all cylinders but you don’t necessarily remember all the little things that happen,” Crosby said.
The two-time MVP has been around long enough to understand that each year has its own set of unique challenges. The group that basically ran in place from October through December sort of forgot how to deal with it.
”You have to go through that stuff over the course of the year and sometimes it’s not as fresh in your mind as winning is,” he said. ”So I think it took us awhile to go through that.”
Things like trying to find a new identity after the departures of Chris Kunitz, Marc-Andre Fleury , Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley and Matt Cullen, all vital pieces of Pittsburgh’s 2016 and 2017 titles. Things like defenseman Justin Schultz and forwards Patric Hornqvist and Bryan Rust all missing significant time with injuries, reminders that – as coach Mike Sullivan likes to put it – the Penguins play a ”belligerent sport.”
Sullivan knew adversity was coming when the season started. And while he didn’t panic he kept reminding his players that nothing is inevitable, not even a playoff berth for a team with the longest active streak in the NHL. There was no fiery speech telling them to get it together because none was required.
”There weren’t really any words said,” Rust said. ”Everybody knew. It’s one of those things. You take a look at the standings. You take a look at how we lost a few of those games early in the year and you just, everybody kind of looked in the mirror a little bit and everybody picked up their own game.”
Though the Penguins insist there was no one moment in which they snapped to, Hornqvist pointed to a 4-0 road win against the New York Islanders on Jan. 5 as game when the light started to come on.
The visit to Brooklyn came just 24 hours after a humbling 4-0 home loss to Carolina. Weather issues forced the team to scramble just to get to the arena. They left with two points and a little bit of swagger.
”Since then I think we’ve been playing good hockey and been improving every game and that’s the key to the season Jerry Rice Jersey ,” Hornqvist said.
Having Malkin and Crosby doing Malkin and Crosby things certainly helps.
Malkin is in the running for his second Hart Trophy as league MVP, his 95 points the most on the team, most of them coming during Pittsburgh’s post-New Year’s Day surge, one in which the Penguins became just the fourth defending champion since 1944 to reach the postseason after being on the outside looking in at the season’s midway point.
When Malkin cooled, Crosby put together a five-game goal scoring streak, including a remarkable double-tap score against Montreal’s Carey Price and an overtime winner against New Jersey last Thursday in which he smacked his own rebound out of midair and by Devils goaltender Keith Kinkaid in overtime.
A win over the Canadiens last Saturday night turned Malkin’s January guarantee into a reality. Though a loss to Washington on Sunday allowed the Capitals to wrap up a third consecutive Metropolitan Division title, the Penguins aren’t particularly concerned. All three Cup parades during the Malkin-Crosby era have followed regular seasons in which the Penguins finished second in their division.
All that matters to Malkin is that Pittsburgh is in the conversation. Just as the Penguins have always been since he arrived in 2007.
”I will always believe my team,” Malkin said. ”I always believe this group. I see these guys every day and we’re still hungry.”
As Boston Red Sox players donned red, white and blue outfits to celebrate a 3-0 victory on the 4th of July that completed a sweep, the Washington Nationals held a players-only meeting to discuss a fifth consecutive loss and the precarious spot they’re now in beyond the halfway point of the season.
Done in again by small mistakes that get magnified in a stretch such as this, the preseason NL East favorites lost for the 17th time in 22 games Wednesday to fall below .500 for the first time this late in the year since being 60-61 on Aug. 21, 2015.
This time, it was a throwing error by Adam Eaton on a sacrifice fly in foul territory and a wild pitch by Ryan Madson (2-4) in a disastrous seventh inning that dropped the Nationals to 42-43 and kept them from making up ground on the division-leading Atlanta Braves.
”We’re a good team and we’re going to go out there and compete with anybody,” said Bryce Harper, who went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts.
”We just have to keep grinding and keep doing our thing and good things will happen. We’ve never been in this position before, and I think it’s an exciting time for us. In years past, we’ve won the division by a lot of games. We’re able to be behind right now and I’m excited to get there and test it.”
Powered by struggling outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr.’s two RBIs on the sac fly and a ninth-inning double and a strong start by Eduardo Rodriguez (10-3), the Red Sox moved 30 games over .500 under rookie manager Alex Cora.
”We know where we’re at, but we still have a long ways to go,” Cora said. ”(The Nationals) have a good team. They’ll figure it out. I’ve seen that before from them. They struggle a little bit and they’ll pick it up. They’ll be in the hunt.”
Bradley Joonas Donskoi Jersey , who came into the game hitting .201, worked full counts on each of his at-bats that produced a run. He was hoping the ball Eaton caught deep in foul territory down the third-base line would go out of play so he could see another pitch but will gladly take the RBIs – the second time this season he has had two in a game without a home run.
”Just had to continue to battle and finally get a pitch I could handle,” Bradley said. ”Any time you can help the team win, it’s a positive. It’s good, any way you can do it.”
Rodriguez struck out six in six scoreless innings, mixing his change-up and slider in more often to keep Nationals hitters off-balance.
The Red Sox now have the first pair of 10-game winners in the majors with Rodriguez and Rick Porcello, whose double off Max Scherzer helped win them the first game of this series.
The Nationals have lost four series in a row. This freefall led to the postgame meeting Wednesday afternoon.
”It’s `Let’s get this thing going,”’ Nationals infielder Trea Turner said. ”We all know we’re capable of playing better baseball. It’s time we do it. It’s do or die now.”
Nationals starter Erick Fedde left the game one batter into the second inning with right shoulder stiffness and gave way to left-hander Matt Grace, who allowed just one hit and struck out four in four innings of relief. Manager Davey Martinez said Fedde was scheduled to have an MRI.
”We watched him throw and his (velocity) was down,” Martinez said. ”He was out there and wanted to keep pitching. I went out there and they told me he was stiff and I said `No, we’re not going to do that to you.”’
Red Sox: Manager Alex Cora said LHP Drew Pomeranz (biceps tendinitis) would most likely make a second rehab start early next week. … RHP Tyler Thornburg was activated from the disabled list after rehabbing from shoulder surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome last June.
Nationals: 1B Matt Adams was activated after missing 16 games with a broken left index finger. To clear room, LHP Tim Collins was designated for assignment. … C Matt Wieters (left hamstring strain) is doing some catching, but still hasn’t done enough running to be ready to return.
Red Sox: After a day off, LHP Chris Sale (8-4, 2.41 ERA) brings a 15-inning scoreless streak into his Friday start at Kansas City, which is expected to start Jason Hammel (2-10, 5.56).
Nationals: RHP Jeremy Hellickson (2-1, 2.63) will look to last at least six innings to spare a heavily used bullpen when Washington faces RHP Pablo Lopez (1-0, 3.00) to open a four-game series against the Miami Marlins.