Eight months after their season ended in Philadelphia, the Pittsburgh Penguins headed back to the scene of that embarrassing, first-round playoff loss looking for a little redemption. And, although Saturday’s 3-1 win couldn’t quite erase the sting of that elimination, it did get this lockout-shortened season off on the right foot – especially for a few players who sorely needed a confidence boost.
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury rebounded from his disappointing 2-4, 4.63 goals-against, .834 save-percentage playoff performance to stop all but one of the Flyers’ 27 shots, netting his 227th career win to surpass Tom Barrasso for the Penguins’ franchise record .
“That’s awesome for him, and it says a lot about how successful he’s been since he’s gotten here,” said captain Sidney Crosby of his 28-year-old netminder. “He gives us a chance to win every night. We had a tough series here last year so, to come back in this building and help us get a big win, we’re all really happy for him.”
“I’ve been with him his whole career and, when he plays like that, he gives all of us confidence in front of him,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik, who came up through the Penguins’ minor-league system with Fleury. “Obviously we’ve had some good teams here, but he really is the backbone of this team. I don’t think he’s much for individual awards, but that’s pretty cool for him.”
Fleury was tested early in this contest, and so was another primary culprit in the Penguins’ early playoff exit – the penalty kill. Goals from Tyler Kennedy and James Neal gave Pittsburgh a 2-0 lead in the first period but, with three Penguins heading to the penalty box in that frame, the PK unit had to make it hold up early, and then again with just over a minute remaining in the game.
“We didn’t waste any time, tested ourselves right away,” Orpik said. “We made some minor adjustments systematically, and I think that helped a lot. But just coming in, having a fresh mind and a clean slate after last year … last year it really snowballed on us. I think we lost our confidence and we started doing things we didn’t normally do, going from the best penalty kill in the regular season to completely collapsing in the playoffs.
“Hopefully this gives us the confidence, especially in this building against this team, and we just keep building off of that.”
One of those systematic adjustments was a reshuffling of defensive pairings. Veteran Zbynek Michalek is back in Phoenix, 21-year-old Simon Despres has made the team to start the season, and Orpik is now paired with Paul Martin – who, after being one of the most-maligned Penguins in recent seasons, might have played his best game in black and gold Saturday.
“I haven’t really played with Paulie much in the last couple years, and they threw us together this week,” Orpik said. “He’s not a guy who’s real flashy; he’s a guy you’ve got to watch a lot to really appreciate what he does. I think we both communicate and read off each other well and, for only practicing for a week together, I felt really comfortable playing with him. Hopefully, as you go on, that just gets better and better.”
“I thought Paul played extremely well, and I thought he and Brooks together did a great job,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “They limited a lot of chances and a lot of opportunities on net. He went back and did a great job on our breakouts and coming out of the D zone, he won battles and was out there against [Philadelphia’s] big guys all night. I thought it was a strong game from our back end, and that was probably led by Paul tonight.”
With the confidence of that opening win under their belts, the Penguins now turn their attention to the New York Rangers on Sunday – and to continuing to shake off the rust of an extended offseason.
“It’s obviously a lot different for every guy,” Orpik said. “Some guys played in Europe; our team didn’t have [as many] but we had a great group skating for probably the last four weeks leading up to the end of the lockout so, hopefully, we got a jump start on some teams.
“Condition-wise, everybody felt great, [but] your timing, that’s probably going to come as the next couple weeks go by with getting into some game action. You’re in great skating shape but the battle conditioning is a lot different. Having guys lean on you, having guys hit you, it takes a lot out of you and you’re not used to that. That’s something that’s so tough to do in practice, but we did our best and I’m sure everyone’s in the same boat across the league. It’ll get better as we go.”
For Bylsma, it’s about adjusting expectations and the approach.
“There were a lot of instances out there where the game was going a little bit faster than their brains were, and sometimes they were a little bit surprised by the quickness and the speed,” he said. “The team execution is just not going to be there, so you have to take a little different approach in terms of the simplicity of it, and the expectations have to adjust as well, [like] taking more opportunities to maybe put pucks in where you might not do that at the 70-game mark. You’ve got to give yourself a chance to have success out there.”
And, by opening the season on the road against their two biggest rivals, Pittsburgh has the chance to do exactly that.
“I think [simplifying our game] is really what we were looking for, and that might be a bit easier when you’re on the road,” Crosby said. “Everyone’s probably not as sharp as they want to be, but I think the main thing is to compete early and let the speed come to you, and I think we did a pretty good of that.”