It might be hard to remember now, but it wasn't all that long ago that the Pittsburgh Penguins
were closer to clinching a spot in the NHL Draft Lottery than they were the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It was mid-February that the Penguins were 10th in the Eastern Conference, and as one Penguins official said, "closing in on 11th."
Then a confluence of things happened that turned around their season and propelled the Penguins up the standings and to the cusp of not only having a chance to defend their conference crown, but to have home-ice advantage while doing it.
"We've been battling through a lot this year, a lot of ups and downs," said center Jordan Staal
. "Right now we're really cherishing the ups and its really going well for us."
Where they are now is a far cry from where they were earlier this season. After last season's emotional six-game loss to the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final, the Pens started with a long European road trip. After playing well in October and November, the Pens struggled through December and January, and their slump carried into early February. They sunk in the standings and looked to be just another team that would follow a recent trend of losing in the Stanley Cup Final and struggling the following season.
The turnaround, however, started Feb. 14, when defenseman Sergei Gonchar
made his season debut. Gonchar had injured his shoulder in the first preseason game, and subsequent surgery kept him out until Valentine's Day. A day later, Dan Bylsma
replaced Michel Therrien
The Penguins lost to the last-place New York Islanders
in a shootout in Bylsma's debut, but it was one of the only blemishes as the Penguins tore off nine wins in their first 11 games with Bylsma at the helm.
And in rapid-fire succession, GM Ray Shero
acquired forwards Chris Kunitz
from Anaheim and Bill Guerin
from the Islanders to flank Sidney Crosby
. That sparked the Pens to a 12-2-3 run from March 4 to the end of the season, and they rose all the way to the fourth seed in the playoffs.
"I thought it was a combination of things," said Staal. "The addition of Kuni and Billy, Gonch coming back, the coach change. It was a matter of time before things started going right for us."
The resiliency to make the playoffs was just one part of their season story. Next came the first round against Philadelphia. The Pens won the first two games, but the Flyers took two of the next three and jumped to a 3-0 lead early in the second period of Game 6. They looked to be in good shape to force a decisive Game 7 in Pittsburgh. But sparked by a Maxime Talbot
fight, the Pens scored the next five goals to win the game and close the series.
More adversity followed in the second round against Washington, as the Caps took the first two games at the Verizon Center. With their 4-3 overtime win in Game 5, though, the Pens have won three in a row and return home with a chance to close out the series Monday night in Game 6.
"I think everyone had a lot of confidence in here," said defenseman Brooks Orpik
. "Things weren't going our way (early), obviously. Don't know if it was a hangover from last year or the European trip we had or whatever. … We got Gonchar back, and then it kind of seemed like everything came together for us.
"We had the same core group of guys we had last year when we went to the Final. We were still a pretty confident group."
They still have reason to be confident, even if Gonchar sat out Game 5 with a knee injury that still bears watching. But one more step remains before they can plan either to face either Carolina or Boston in the conference finals.
"When you're in a battle like this you don't have time to reflect on that stuff," said Sidney Crosby
. "It's a battle right now. We're one game away, but there are two (games left). We've got to make sure we take advantage of the opportunity."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com.