Penguins eager to play Sharks, build on wins

PITTSBURGH -- Traditionally, All-Stars rejoining their teams after the exhibition game and activities are given a day off from practice. Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang wanted no such special treatment.

The Pittsburgh Penguins' two All-Stars were full participants in practice Monday. Letang explained during the festivities in Tampa that what the team was building lately was too exciting to take an extra day off before the schedule resumes Tuesday against the San Jose Sharks at PPG Paints Arena.

Pittsburgh (27-21-3) sits third in the tight Metropolitan Division but is just one point ahead of a wild card spot and two away from being out of playoff spot -- a place the Penguins sat in or flirted with at times the first half of the season.

They have won two in a row and, since a disheartening 4-0 loss to Carolina Jan. 4, are 7-2 to move back into a playoff spot.

"We know how hard it is to win and what it takes to win, and it seems like we're getting back to that kind of hockey," Penguins winger Conor Sheary said Monday. "I think we're playing back to (the level) we know how to play."

Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan, trying to lead his club to a strong stretch run and third straight Stanley Cup, understands and appreciates the sense of urgency that has spread through the team.

"I just think it's the nature of the league, the way the format of the league is with overtime losses being awarded points," Sullivan said. "It's hard to create any sort of separation.

"Year in and year out, it seems like you're in a race to earn a playoff spot. It's no different this year. We certainly would like to be in a better position than we are, but we also believe that we're in control of our own destiny. We just have to stay in the moment."

One of Pittsburgh's two losses in its recent stretch came Jan. 20 at San Jose, 2-1.

The Sharks (26-15-7) are second in Pacific Division, but only two points separate them from two division rivals that are below the playoff cutoff. Since winning three in a row in the middle of the month, they are 2-2-1, and now they are dealing with the absence of veteran center and franchise cornerstone Joe Thornton.

Thornton had arthroscopic surgery Thursday for a medial collateral ligament injury to his right knee. There is no timetable for his return. He had five goals, nine points in the seven games before he got hurt.

"I don't know the long-term prognosis of this," San Jose coach Peter DeBoer told the San Jose Mercury News. "I know he's not going to be available here in the near future, so that's all I'm concerned about. I'm concerned about coming out of the break and going into Pittsburgh."

The game against the Penguins is the first of back-to-backs and three in four nights as the Sharks open a five-game road trip. They are playing 14 games in the first 27 days of February.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic

"We've played a lot of games. We're going to play a lot more in a short span, too," San Jose defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic said. "It's funny. There's no Olympics (for NHL players, so no correlating condensed schedule), and yet everybody's telling me there's too many games (packed together), so figure it out."
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