The Pittsburgh Penguins have heard the buzz. As they went on a 16-5 tear to close the season, rising from playoff-bubble team to second place in their division, they also rose in the opinions of many from an also-ran to a Stanley Cup favorite.
But the Penguins don’t need prognosticators to tell them that something special has been building over the second half of their season. That the comparisons to their 2009 team, which also replaced an ill-fitting coach with one who got them playing a dynamic, fast-paced brand of hockey midway through the season, then surged all the way to the Stanley Cup, are becoming hard to ignore.
Marc-Andre Fleury knows it.
“I really like our team right now,” he said. “The way we’ve been playing the last couple months, it’s been good. We’ve been consistent, we’ve been winning big games, we’ve done well down the stretch. It’s good for confidence.”
That’s why, despite missing only five games with his second concussion of the season, sustained March 31 – he missed eight with his first in December – the Penguins’ starting netminder seems bound and determined to be in goal Wednesday when his club hosts the New York Rangers for Game 1 of their first-round playoff series.
With third-string goalie Jeff Zatkoff the only other feasible option, as backup Matt Murray also sustained an apparent concussion in the Penguins’ regular-season finale Saturday, Fleury returned to practice Monday, then ramped up his work Tuesday.
“I’m still working my way back, I think – timing-wise and technically, things here and there,” Fleury said. “I feel pretty good; have to talk with the docs again tomorrow.”
Fleury, 31, has been around long enough to know there’s no way to replicate game conditions in practice, and he has plenty of work to do to get back to his excellent regular-season form.
“You can practice as much as you want, but it’s never the same with how quick it is, how much traffic there is,” he said. He cited most aspects of his game as things he’s looking to improve, including “reaction times, picking up pucks, rebounds, reading plays. The little things that will come back the more action you see.”
Something that’s not so little? The Rangers skaters who will be crashing the net at every opportunity – and, after seeing a lot of them for two consecutive postseasons, Fleury would know.
“They always do,” he said. “A bunch of big guys who like to go to the net, [set up] screens. I’m not too worried about it. If I come back, it’s because I’m [healthy] and I’ll be fine with it.”
The Penguins as a whole are getting healthier. Defenseman Olli Maatta participated in full practices this week and is expected to play Game 1. Forward Beau Bennett, who’s been in and out of the lineup with a lingering shoulder injury, will be a coach’s decision – depending, he said Tuesday, on whether Mike Sullivan feels he or recently recalled tough guy Tom Sestito gives the team the best chance to win. Speedy winger Bryan Rust and gamebreaker Evgeni Malkin are back to skating, though not yet practicing, and considered day-to-day.
Malkin, the 2009 Conn Smythe winner, is attempting to fast-track his return from a March 11 injury that was projected at 6-to-8 weeks, but the Penguins have more than held the fort in his absence, posting the best record (13-2) of any team in the league while scoring more goals (60) and allowing the third-fewest (33).
“We’re a confident group in here,” said winger Carl Hagelin, who ended the Penguins’ season last year when he played on the other side of the rivalry and scored the Game 5 overtime winner.
“We know what we did the last 25 games or so, and we understand how hard we have to play to win games. The playoffs are a different animal. You have to take your game to another level to have a chance.”
That’s especially true against the Rangers, who pulled off a devastating comeback from a 3-1, second-round series deficit to eliminate the Penguins in 2014. New York will again boast a world-class goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist but are suffering injury woes of their own, most notably in captain and top defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who’s unlikely to play in the series.
“I think, for us, we focus on what we can do,” Hagelin said. “We know they’re a good team; they’ve shown it year in and year out. But there’s a lot of new players, new coaches, new personnel everywhere, so whatever happened the last couple years doesn’t matter now. It’s a new season and new opportunities.”
For the Penguins, the biggest opportunity lies in the fact that their team – particularly with the additions of Hagelin and Phil Kessel up front and Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz on the back end – is now built to keep pace with the Rangers’ speed. That’s especially important against the counterattack game that Sullivan views as the Blueshirts’ biggest strength.
“I think it’s really important that you manage the puck appropriately and don’t give them an opportunity to counterattack on you when you’re vulnerable,” said Sullivan, a former Rangers assistant coach. “In the regular season, I thought our guys did a pretty good job in that regard and forcing them to play goal line to goal line.”
“They’re quick,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “If you look at the games we’ve played this year, [they’ve] been fast games up and down. There’s some great skaters, and both teams move the puck pretty quick which adds to it. You would expect a pretty high pace, especially in the playoffs.”
That’s a game the Penguins believe they can win. Against the Rangers and, for that matter, against any of the other teams standing between them and their ultimate goal.
“We’re definitely going in with a sense of knowing that we can beat any team on any given night if we play the way we can,” Hagelin said.
“This team has established an identity for itself and has played to its strengths for a long time,” Sullivan echoed. “I think there’s a belief in the room that, when we play a certain way, we give our team the best chance to win and we’re a competitive hockey team.”