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Penguins figuring out how to lock down leads

by Tal Pinchevsky

NEW YORK -- The Pittsburgh Penguins eliminated the upstart Columbus Blue Jackets in six games in the Eastern Conference First Round, but they didn't make it easy on themselves.

The Penguins were barely able to maintain sizable leads against the Blue Jackets. But three games into their Eastern Conference Second Round series against the New York Rangers, they may have learned from their previous miscues. They hope to continue that improved play with the lead in Game 4 on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS).

"It's been the theme of the playoffs so far, all the come-from-behind wins," Penguins forward Brandon Sutter said Tuesday. "It is tough when you get back on your heels and you have a lead. I think we can be better when we do have the lead, not getting on our heels and trying to keep pushing. No lead is safe, so you've got to keep playing."

The Penguins learned that the hard way in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Against Columbus, Pittsburgh's two losses came after blowing leads of 3-1 in Game 2 and 3-0 in Game 4. In perhaps the ultimate example of how no Penguins lead was safe, Columbus stormed back from a 4-0 third-period deficit in Game 6, coming within inches of tying the game in the closing seconds before losing 4-3.

Through three games against the Rangers, the Penguins have been airtight playing from in front. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury collecting back-to-back shutouts in Games 2 and 3 certainly helps, but the Penguins have found a way to clamp down on the Rangers' attack late in games and have yet to relinquish a lead in the series.

It could be a sign of a team that is maturing as the playoffs go on. Pittsburgh leads this best-of-7 series 2-1.

"We looked at the first round, where we need to get better and what we did learn in that series. We're trying to apply that now," coach Dan Bylsma said. "I think you're seeing that. Game 2 may have been our most complete game in a lot of areas. Even [Monday] night, [was] a lot different than our mentality and our approach in the first round with a lead."

Pittsburgh held on to secure a 2-0 victory in Game 3, but its defensive clampdown wasn't pretty. From the 13-minute mark of the second period, the Penguins were outshot 18-2. Pittsburgh was outshot 9-1 in the third, but didn't give up too many high-percentage opportunities to the Rangers despite ceding puck possession to New York for almost the entire second half of the game. That defensive shell proved to be effective, but Bylsma would like to see the Penguins play more assertively with the lead moving forward.

"I don't think one shot and no scoring chances for in the third was what we were looking for, but [we were] a real calm and confident group going over the boards," Bylsma said. "I like the way we did it in Game 2 a lot better than last night. Last night we cut the ice in half and just played on our half, for the most part. We did a pretty good job of it defending that way. We did a good job clogging the neutral zone and playing defense."

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