There was a definitive story line this week in successive games between the Pittsburgh Penguins and visiting New Jersey Devils.
On Saturday afternoon, the teams will meet for a third straight time at Pittsburgh to show what lessons have been learned.
Tuesday, the Penguins built a 6-0 lead through two periods, then nearly abandoned the defensive aspect of their game and barely held on for a 7-6 victory that left the players and coach Mike Sullivan a bit bewildered.
Thursday, Pittsburgh built a 5-1 lead through two periods, then doubled down defensively, leading to a scoreless third period that left the Penguins (30-14-3) feeling as though they made significant progress in the four-goal victory.
"We looked at it like an opportunity to learn from (Tuesday)," said Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby, who scored Thursday and is one goal away from reaching 20 goals in a season for the 13th time.
Pittsburgh is 12-3-2 in its past 17 games, helping to make a solid push for the East Division title. The Penguins are in second place, one point behind division leader Washington, with the top four teams separated by four points. Fourth-place Boston is sitting with two games in hand on the top three.
"I think it (would be) huge to finish first and get the (home ice) advantage and set the tone for everybody, knowing that we're a great hockey team and we've been playing really well," said Penguins winger Kasperi Kapanen, who returned Thursday from a 13-game absence (foot injury) and had a goal and an assist.
After the third game in this miniseries Saturday, Pittsburgh has two games each against Boston and Washington that could go a long way toward determining playoff matchups.
"It's going to be a big test for us," Kapanen said. "We can't overlook the next game against Jersey, but we've got Boston and we've got some big games against some big teams. It's crunch time for us right now."
The Devils (14-26-6) might have gotten some buoyancy in their six-goal third period Tuesday, but it didn't result in a win -- or enough momentum to be competitive Thursday.
New Jersey has lost eight straight games - four of them to the Penguins -- and is in a race with Buffalo to avoid finishing last in the East.
"Extremely frustrated," Devils coach Lindy Ruff said of his club's psyche. "We're at a point where I'm asking them to work and do a lot of things and continue to work and continue to fight and continue to battle.
"It's an awfully disappointed group, from top down. It's on me to get them to the right place, to get them ready to play the next game."
Between the games Tuesday and Thursday, Ruff challenged his goaltenders to be better. Yet Thursday, Aaron Dell started and got pulled for Scott Wedgewood after giving up four goals. On Tuesday, it was Wedgewood who got pulled.
Ruff doubled down.
"We're a team that needs big saves (when our skaters make) big mistakes," he said. "We haven't gotten them."
It's possible that No. 1 goalie Mackenzie Blackwood, who missed the first two games of this miniseries because of an injury, could return for Saturday.
Ruff expanded his finger-pointing to his skaters as an additional reason for Thursday's loss, particularly in terms of puck management.
"We didn't execute, and it cost us dearly," Ruff said.
--Field Level Media