Finally, the long, 82-game preseason is over and the real games can begin.
The Pittsburgh Penguins weren’t going to say anything like that, of course. But, when you’ve raised the Stanley Cup at the end of each of the last two seasons, how can the games before spring feel like anything other than a warmup for the ones that really count?
“There’s times where it feels like it’s going slow,” defenseman Justin Schultz acknowledged. “But it’s crazy we’re already in the playoffs again. We’re all excited. It’s the best time of year to play.”
The Penguins finished with 100 points, good for second place in the Metro Division, fifth in the Eastern Conference and 10th in the NHL. That’s 11 points shy of last season, when they finished second across the board.
When your franchise has played more games than any other over the past three years, however – 295, to be exact – what mattered most was gaining momentum down the stretch. With a 28-11-3 record since Jan. 1, the Penguins largely did that.
For good measure, they punctuated the regular season with a resilient, 5-4 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets Friday to get a leg up on home ice, then sealed the deal with a 4-0 shutout over the Ottawa Senators on Saturday.
“I think we’ve had to play meaningful games here down the stretch which brings out the best in us, and that urgency and desperation is there because of the situation,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “We’ve had to fight back in games, we’ve had different situations, and I think we’ve done a good job of handling those.
“We have to be able to be confident heading into the playoffs and make sure we find another level.”
In case they needed any help finding that next level, their rivals from across the commonwealth should provide all the motivation they need. Pittsburgh hosts the Flyers in Round 1, Game 1 this Wednesday.
Although things between these two clubs figure to get plenty nasty over the course of a best-of-seven series, this series will be won on skill, not scraps. Philly finished just two points behind the Penguins, also on the strength of a strong second half. And they did it with scoring.
The Penguins led the league with 161 goals since Jan. 1, but the No. 5 Flyers weren’t far behind with 143. Neither team was particularly shutting down the opposition, with Pittsburgh giving up 121 goals in 42 games and Philly conceding 130 in 44.
Where the Penguins could have a clear advantage, though, is on special teams. Their power play’s 26.2 percent success rate wasn’t only the best in the league this year; it beat the franchise-record 26 percent set by a power play featuring Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis in 1995-96.
“I remember watching that power play,” Crosby said. “They scored a lot and they scored a lot of really nice ones, too; highlight-reel goals. We certainly have a group that can score, and we have guys who provide different things. We take a lot of pride in it, and it’s good that we’re able to [use it to] create good things and help us win.”
Neither club’s penalty-kill has been among the league’s best this year, and Pittsburgh’s slipped to No. 17 with an 80 percent success rate on the season after going just 69.6 percent since the trade deadline. But the Flyers were worse, with their 75.8 kill rate putting them third from last in the NHL.
The Penguins could help their own cause by staying out of the penalty box; they’re the league’s eighth most penalized team this year with 330 minutes, an average of 9:27 per game. Philly was in the bottom 10 with 283, an average of 8:16 per game.
A team’s goalie is its most important penalty killer, of course, and it’s fair to say neither club has gotten shutdown goaltending this year.
For the Penguins, Matt Murray missed time with injuries and hasn’t quite returned to Stanley Cup form since returning from a concussion last month. He’s 27-16-3 on the season with a 2.92 goals-against average and .906 save percentage; over the past month, he’s 4-3-1 with a 3.38 GAA and .898 save percentage. And, if Murray gets hurt or falters, the Penguins don’t have a No. 1A option to turn to, like they did with Marc-Andre Fleury last year, and would have to turn to rookie Casey DeSmith.
For the Flyers, who haven’t had a truly dominant netminder since current GM Ron Hextall was between the pipes, it’ll likely be Brian Elliott, who went 23-11-7 this year with a 2.66 GAA and .909 save percentage. They also have some veteran depth with Michal Neuvirth and Petr Mrazek, who started 18 and 15 games, respectively.
On paper, there are some clear numbers favoring the Penguins – starting with the season series, with the Penguins swept, 4-0. The Penguins scored five goals in all of those contests, though Philly scored four in two games that went to overtime. There’s also Sidney Crosby, who racked up nine points (2G, 7A) in those four games. He has more career goals against Philadelphia than any other opponent.
For Crosby and his team, it’s all been leading up to this. Wednesday, they’ll kick off their bid to become the first NHL team to three-peat in 35 years.
“This has been a challenging year for us in a lot of different ways,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “But what I love about our group is, when the stakes get high, we play at our best, and I think that’s an indication of the leadership we have in the room.
“The fact that we solidified home-ice advantage, that was a goal we set out to do. We felt it was important for us, and we think it puts us in the best possible position moving forward. Now we’ve got to go out and try to earn our way from here. But we’re proud of this hockey team. We think we’ve got a terrific group of players, they’re certainly great people, and they’re a lot of fun to coach.”