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Penguins putting rough finish to season in the past

by Wes Crosby

PITTSBURGH -- Mike Johnston never has been a coach in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and doesn't want his first trip to end prematurely.

After an inconsistent first regular season with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Johnston will lead them into Game 1 of their Eastern Conference First Round series against the New York Rangers on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports, ROOT, MSG). Pittsburgh limped to the playoffs in a way they hadn't experienced under Dan Bylsma and Michel Therrien, who each led Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup Final, with Bylsma winning a championship in 2009.

Johnston said he isn't looking at the success his predecessors brought to the organization. He's looking at Thursday.

"Anytime the season ends you turn the page, especially at this time of year," Johnston said. "There's just something in your body. You get excited. You're looking forward to the playoffs, and that's what everybody works for."

Pressure comes along with coaching Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Penguins frequently have been considered among the favorites to win the Stanley Cup since losing in six games to the Detroit Red Wings in the 2008 Cup Final.

Those expectations have been tempered this season. A year after being the favorite against New York in the Eastern Conference Second Round, the roles have been reversed.

"I've been in both positions before. I'm sure this team has been in both in certain series at times," Johnston said. "I don't think it really matters. Sometimes if you're the top team there are high expectations. Sometimes if you're the underdog there are still expectations. … Maybe [analysts] give them the advantage in the series for one reason or another, but our expectations are still the same.

"It's what we derive internally here. And that's the key focus."

Pittsburgh is considerably different than it was under Bylsma at this time last season. The offense has dipped, scoring 217 non-shootout goals after scoring 242 in 2013-14.

The defense has remained generally the same statistically, allowing three more goals than it did last season. But Johnston's Penguins are a more defensive-oriented team that relies on goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, steady and clean play along its blue line and a strong penalty kill.

The Penguins of recent seasons statistically were good defensive units but were criticized for falling off once the playoffs started. Under Johnston, Pittsburgh could be better prepared to face the Rangers than it was when it allowed a 3-1 series lead to slip away last year.

"I think last year through four games we thought we were in pretty good shape and played really well," forward Brandon Sutter said. "But it's a new year. A lot of new faces. New guys. A new system here. So I think we're a different team and we hope there are parts of our game that are improved, even though we didn't finish as well, regular-season wise.

"But we kind of designed this whole year on being a good playoff team and we're going to find out pretty quick playing against a good team how much we're built and we hope it's going to be a recipe for success."

The new emphasis on defense might have helped Fleury more than any other player. The 30-year-old arguably had the most impressive regular season of his 11-year NHL career, with a 2.32 goals-against average, .920 save percentage and NHL-leading 10 shutouts.

"Mike is pretty direct. He's straightforward," Fleury said. "I like the way he gets us to play the game he wants us to play. For me, too, it's been good because it's probably a little more defensive. … I think we'll be more likely [to play the way it's necessary] to play in games against the Rangers. I'm sure that's going to be a good help, just mentally to know what it takes and what to expect."

It is questionable whether the Penguins will be able to carry their strong defensive play into their series against the Rangers. Injuries have thinned the Penguins defense with Kris Letang and Christian Ehrhoff, arguably their two best offensive defensemen, and Derrick Pouliot, the Penguins' top rookie, all sidelined.

Letang could miss the playoffs because of a concussion sustained against the Arizona Coyotes on March 28. Ehrhoff (upper body) was cleared for contact Tuesday and is listed as day-to-day. Pouliot has not skated since sustaining an upper-body injury against the Ottawa Senators on April 7.

Pouliot's injury forced the Penguins to play with five defensemen in their final two games, their second stint playing down one defenseman late in the season.

Johnston's message during his introductory press conference June 25, 2014, was it would be more important for Pittsburgh to play the right way, even in defeat, than it would be to rack up points in order to be prepared for the playoffs. The Penguins struggled through their final 15 games, going 4-9-2, but Johnston's claim that they were playing the way he wanted, just not for a full 60 minutes, never wavered.

How the defensemen performed late in the season, while asked to play longer shifts and more minutes, was an example of Johnston's philosophy.

"We really had to manage our minutes as far as shift length," Johnston said. "But it was good for our defense because you look at the guys and how they played in those moments when we had to go with five defensemen, and boy, we really saw some really good things. We talked about that heading into the Buffalo game [April 11], about how our defense has really risen up and taken advantage of an opportunity, taken advantage of more minutes.

"And they've delivered."

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