RALEIGH, N.C. -- On the night the Pittsburgh Penguins clinched the Atlantic Division championship, three newcomers grew a little more comfortable in their roles.
Forwards Jussi Jokinen, Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla all chipped in on the score sheet in a 5-3 win against the Carolina Hurricanes, and all expressed their gratitude for being part of this front-running team.
In a League where late-season trades are an annual reality, it was endearing to hear the newest Penguins still dealing with the quirkiness of joining a new team.
"They've been very successful for a while," Iginla said, perhaps still thinking of the Calgary Flames as 'we'. "They're used to winning in tight spots. It's a very confident group. They're very talented, but they compete very hard, too."
Iginla shares those traits, and they were on display on the game-winning goal. After knocking down a puck in the neutral zone, he played pitch-and-catch with Evgeni Malkin, who finished by knocking in Iginla's rebound at 10:02 of the third period.
"Malkin made a nice play to me, gave me a chance to shoot it," Iginla said. "I got a good look and shot it. With his long reach at the net, it was nice to see him poke that one in."
It was the second of two goals in 13 seconds, as Pittsburgh rallied from a 3-2 deficit. Beau Bennett had scored on a backhander moments earlier.
Carolina started the scoring early in the first period on a goal from defenseman Joe Corvo, but two more Pittsburgh newbies combined to tie the score just 1:32 later. Jussi Jokinen, playing his second game since being dealt from the Hurricanes, collected a loose puck and sent a backhand to Morrow for his first as a Penguin. The two previously played parts of three seasons together with the Dallas Stars.
"I'm not sure how many games we got to play (on a line) together with each other in Dallas, but he makes good little plays," said Morrow, who was the Stars’ captain. "It was a behind-the-back pass in an area that it was tough to make."
For Jokinen's part, the game held extra meaning. He was well-regarded by his teammates, and he still feels very strongly about his their current plight. The Hurricanes had lost nine of 10 when Jokinen left the team. The tailspin has now grown to 13 of 14, including a franchise-record, seven-game losing streak at home.
"That team doesn't have lots of confidence," Jokinen said. "When you don't have the confidence, you squeeze your stick harder. Those two quick goals have happened a lot to the Hurricanes. They let one in and another is coming pretty soon. That's been the problem the last couple weeks."
Despite the rash of losses, Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller has rarely changed his tone in recent weeks, instead pointing out that his team continues to play hard.
"This is all learning experiences right now," said Muller, whose team fell to 16-21-2. We played hard against them. If anything, we can say, ‘Hey, we can play with these guys.’ But you have to be mentally tough to play these games. You have to stay with it, you've got to grind through it and every play is important. That was the message tonight: put all the effort in you want, but if you make a couple mistakes as the games get tighter, you'll pay for it."
In the visitor's dressing room the outlook is far brighter. Not only are the Penguins locked into the playoffs, but the newcomers are feeling at home. That's important for guys like Iginla and Morrow, veterans who know the dynamics of just one other franchise, having played in one city their entire careers.
"Coming from a team that's kind of puttering around in 9th and 10th, then getting to a team like this where winning is contagious," Morrow said. "I'm just happy to be a part of it."
As the former Dallas captain tries to explain what is different in his new surroundings, he too loses track of the pronoun that fits his now role.
"It's just the confidence they have, a belief in the room that they're going to win every night," he said.
"We're missing some great guys who are out of the lineup, but it's still a very deep, skilled team," Iginla said. "There's a variety of skills on the team and they have different roles. You always hear that -- about the different roles and guys accepting that, but these guys thrive in them and enjoy them."
Playing in the Eastern Conference for the past six seasons, Jokinen has seen the Penguins' identity evolve.
"You can sense on this team there is a winning culture here," he said. "They do all the little things."
If the little things are important, Jokinen, Iginla and Morrow should all fit the mold in Pittsburgh. Each has built a reputation in the League as a two-way player who doesn't cheat on the details of the game. Now that each has earned his second scoring point in Pittsburgh, the blending of the old guard and the new faces moves a step closer to completion -- even for someone like Iginla, who was the face of Calgary's franchise for 17 years.
After five games, he likes his new home.
"I do, and every day I feel more so," he said. "Every day feels a little bit more comfortable. It was a different first week and trying to keep the emotions in check and the nerves because everything is surreal."
He's still working on referring to Pittsburgh as "we," but he's making progress where it counts.
"I'm used to putting on the jersey that says Penguins," he said with big smile. "I'm a Penguin, and I want to be part of the success here."
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