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Penguins' success starts with buying into new system

by Wes Crosby continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.

The Pittsburgh Penguins' recent trend of disappointment in the Stanley Cup Playoffs following an impressive regular season continued in 2013-14, when they were eliminated by the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Second Round after holding a 3-1 series lead.

Pittsburgh overhauled its managerial and coaching staffs, along with its lineup, in an effort to break that trend. The Penguins will still have familiar faces Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury when they open their season Oct. 9 against the Anaheim Ducks, but not much else is the same.

Second-line forwards James Neal and Jussi Jokinen have departed and must be replaced. Key defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen are with the Metropolitan Division rival Washington Capitals. Coach Mike Johnston has replaced Stanley Cup-winning coach Dan Bylsma.

"I think anytime there is change, there's renewed focus," Johnston said. "Everybody wants to know what I'm supposed to do, what's my role, what's my responsibility. … There's going to be some new things that we're trying here that maybe have been done before or haven't been done before, some guys have done with the team. What you need to do is, you have to ask them questions.

"Then when you head into a game, you need to be able to play the game."

With the change comes uncertainty, but also opportunity. Here are three keys for Pittsburgh to continue its regular-season success on the way to a potentially more prosperous postseason:

1. Buy into the new system -- With a new coach, it is expected the Penguins will not play in the same exact manner they have for the past several seasons.

Through the first week of training camp, the players have remarked on the difference between the drills Johnston employs to those they have become accustomed to. The new coach wants to push the tempo, use as few passes as possible to exit the zone and have his defensemen join the rush.

To get prepared to run that style, he has run a camp that the Penguins have consistently called "intense."

2. Remain healthy -- Throughout an 82-game schedule, it is unrealistic to expect any team to avoid sustaining notable injuries. But Pittsburgh would benefit from not having the same misfortune when it comes to health it had a year ago.

The Penguins lost 527 man-games to injury or illness last season, and a bulk of those came from recognizable names missing significant time. Letang missed more than half a season due to injuries as well as a stroke in January, forward Pascal Dupuis last played Dec. 23 when he tore his ACL, defenseman Rob Scuderi missed 29 games and forward Beau Bennett missed 61.

With additions like defenseman Christian Ehrhoff and forwards Patric Hornqvist, Nick Spaling, Steve Downie and Blake Comeau in the lineup, the Penguins would benefit from a relatively healthy season that allows the new pieces to jell.

3. Get off to another fast start -- The Penguins were barely tested in the Metropolitan Division last season, and that was thanks in part to a 7-1-0 start. With the division seemingly stronger, the Penguins could do themselves a favor by having similar success this October.

Six of the Penguins' nine October games will be played at Consol Energy Center, where they went 28-9-4 last season. Their three divisional games in the month, against the New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils, will each be played in Pittsburgh.

They will finish the month against the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings at home. That game, and the rest of the month, will shape the perception surrounding these new-look Penguins.

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