PITTSBURGH – Sidney Crosby is aware of what happened a year ago. He doesn't think it matters.
The New York Rangers defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Second Round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs after trailing the series, 3-1. The series loss led to sweeping change throughout the Penguins organization, from a new general manager and coach to a retooled roster.
Crosby has gone back and watched tape from that series. Other Penguins, such as defenseman Ben Lovejoy, have said it hasn't been mentioned in the locker room. Either way, the Penguins hope the outcome can be different when they play the Rangers in the Eastern Conference First Round, starting with Game 1 at Madison Square Garden on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, ROOT, MSG).
Whether the series last year has been widely discussed amongst the Penguins or not, Crosby thinks they can learn a few lessons to avoid an early exit this time.
"All the games seemed pretty similar. The margin for error was pretty small," Crosby said. "You talk about the playoffs, and one mistake here or there is a pretty big difference. But it seemed like, as the series went on, they were able to get a little bit more momentum, extended shifts, stuff like that. Where they were able to really get extended periods of time where either we didn't get enough in-zone [time] or they were able to get power plays and stuff like that, that they were really able to build on.
"That's going to happen in the playoffs. You're going to have kind of ups and downs throughout the game and they're going to generate momentum, but I think later on in that series, we didn't do a good enough job of just finding ways to grab it back, whether it be with a power-play goal or a big shift where you get extended time to draw a penalty, something like that … You don't want to give them a lot of opportunities and get back on your heels."
There are substantial differences between the Penguins team the Rangers defeated on their way to an Eastern Conference Final win against the Montreal Canadiens last season and the one it will face Thursday. The Penguins, favored as the East's second seed a year ago, are a decided underdog against the Presidents Trophy-winning Rangers.
The Penguins struggled down the stretch, clinching a playoff berth with a 2-0 win against the Buffalo Sabres in their final regular-season game. Prior to that win, Pittsburgh had lost each of its first five April games (0-4-1) while surrendering a lead in each of the first four.
"It's a different way of getting in. I feel like we've been fighting here for a while," Crosby said. "It doesn't feel like we were just able to coast in and count the games down. Usually, at different points, I feel like we were just trying to stay healthy and avoid injuries at that point, and I think this year was a little different. We had to fight and we were missing a lot of guys, things like that. It's definitely a different feeling going in, but not necessarily a bad thing.
"I feel like it's kind of an extension of what our last couple of weeks have been like. So, in a way, we only had to get maybe one or two wins point-wise, but it feels like for the last week and a half, we've already been in the playoffs."
Last postseason, the Penguins fought through the Eastern Conference First Round to defeat the Columbus Blue Jackets in six games before running into the Rangers. They were built differently, with an explosive offensive they've been known for since Crosby first made the playoffs in 2006-07.
Center - PIT
GOALS: 28 | ASST: 56 | PTS: 84
SOG: 237 | +/-: 5
This year, the Penguins have become stronger defensive unit, reliant on the impressive play of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury
and a strong penalty kill, while sacrificing some of their offensive potency.
"I think, last year, when you look at them being able to put three wins together late in the series, that's something that you don't want to give them an opportunity to do again," Crosby said. "Just being aware of those things, I think is important. As far as our system goes, it's only as good as you execute. So, I think it's going to be up to us to execute well in whatever that system is.
"Whether it was in last year's way or this year's way, I guess you could say it all comes down to executing."
The Penguins are not a heavy favorite to win the Stanley Cup for the first time since before they made consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearances against the Detroit Red Wings in 2007-08 and 2008-09. As favorites, Pittsburgh has struggled in the postseason since winning the Cup in its second opportunity against Detroit.
It might not be an ideal situation for the Penguins, but a bit of change might not hurt.
"I think every year, it's important to win," Crosby said. "And obviously, the expectations are high on us. I think that we definitely made it a little closer than we would've liked down the stretch, but it doesn't matter at this point. We're all starting fresh here and, like I said, with those expectations, it's easy to get caught up in them, but it's also very tough to get in the playoffs.
"Once you're there, you want to make the most of it. It's a grind and a roller coaster emotionally and mentally, but it's the best time of year to be playing."