|Pittsburgh clinched their 2009 Stanley Cup championship with a 2-1 victory over the Red Wings in their last visit to Joe Louis Arena on June 12, 2009. Credit - Getty Images |
Seventy-two games are officially in the books for Pittsburgh here in the 2009-10 National Hockey League season. Unlike last March, when the Penguins were still fighting and clawing their way up the Eastern Conference ladder, they firmly entrenched as one of the top-four seeds this year heading into the stretch run.
As the two-time defending Eastern Conference champions, the Penguins certainly know what it takes to win at this time of the year. They plan on using the remaining 10 regular-season games to pick up as many points as they can and to further hone their system in preparation for what they hope is another lengthy postseason run.
That process begins with a quick two-game road swing through Detroit and Washington – two of the Penguins’ fiercest rivals in addition to representing half of the Pittsburgh’s journey to last season’s Stanley Cup championship.
“We’re trying to be the best team that we can be,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “We’re trying to be an elite team. We have areas that we need to work on. We address those and talk about those, and we get challenges against Detroit and going into Washington on Wednesday.”
Monday’s visit to Joe Louis Arena marks the Penguins’ first regular-season trip to Detroit since that memorable 2-1 victory in Game 7 which allowed Pittsburgh to dethrone the Red Wings as Stanley Cup champions on June 12 of last season.
Naturally, the Penguins are looking forward to returning to the scene of the biggest triumph of their careers.
“It’s a rivalry game,” Bylsma said. “It’s a team that we have played a lot in the last year, especially in some meaningful games. We’ll have a good memory walking into the arena to start off with.”
“I think we have had our share of good battles at that rink and a nice celebration at the end (last year),” Marc-Andre Fleury
said. “I’m sure it will feel great to get back out there. They are always intense games with these games. We have had good games against them in the past and are looking forward to facing them again.”
Still, Sidney Crosby
and Bill Guerin believe the Penguins understand the importance of getting to their game and taking care of business on Monday night.
“I think every guy will be different,” Crosby said. “I am sure that will cross your mind when you first get there. I think pretty quickly you get focused on the game and don’t think about that stuff.”
“We have good memories there,” Guerin added. “We have to put that behind us. We need this game and we need to play well. We definitely have great memories but last year was then and we really need to start playing better and that is where it starts.”
Beating the Red Wings won’t come easily. Detroit’s eighth-place standing in the Western Conference is very misleading. Many of their top stars, including Johan Franzen, Tomas Holmstrom and Niklas Kronwall, have missed significant action due to injury.
However, Detroit has had almost their full complement of bodies of the past month, and the result is a current 7-2-1 run, including a dramatic 4-3 victory over the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday when Henrik Zetterberg notched the game-winning tally with 0.3 seconds remaining in overtime.
“They have been through a lot of injuries this year,” Crosby said. “That is where it has kind of taken them. It doesn’t matter how you get in – especially with a team like that. They are confident and playing well here down the stretch. These are important points for us too.”
We have good memories there. We have to put that behind us. We need this game and we need to play well. We definitely have great memories but last year was then and we really need to start playing better and that is where it starts. - Bill Guerin
Speaking of playing well, Guerin believes that as the Penguins finish out the remainder of their regular-season slate the No. 1 focus for the team should be getting to their game. He said that controlling the pace of the game by having the puck on their sticks was one of the trademarks for Pittsburgh during their late-season push in ’08-09.
“I think we always talk about offensive-zone time and things like that,” Guerin said. “That is the type of team we are. We can grind teams down. The more we do that the better we will be.”
Defenseman Jordan Leopold, a relative newcomer to the Penguins, but a Stanley Cup Finalist with the Calgary Flames during the 2003-04 season, wants to see the Penguins continue to establish their identity over the next three weeks. As a veteran, he knows how a team is playing entering the postseason is just as important as a team’s won-loss record.
“We have to be consistent throughout our game no matter if we win or lose,” Leopold said. “We have to play a certain way and do that every night – that is what it is going to come down to. You don’t want to show up one night and play a certain way and then show up the next night and play another way. That is our No. 1 most important thing we have to improve on here.”
Crosby said beginning the home stretch in tough venues like Joe Louis Arena and the Verizon Center in Washington on Wednesday should only help the Penguins in their quest to prepare their game for the rigors of postseason play.
“This is going to be a good test,” Crosby said. “We have to get our game where it needs to be going down the stretch. You don’t want to try to turn it on when you get to the playoffs. It has to be something that is already there for us. … It’s good playing these good teams because that is when these habits will show.”
Leopold said he has no doubt the Penguins will continue to develop the positive habits that are necessary to execute Bylsma’s up-tempo system. He said the next 10 games will go a long way towards properly preparing the Penguins for next month’s postseason grind.
“If you look at the schedule ahead we have 10 games left,” Leopold said. “It is a matter of getting prepared for the playoffs and moving forward. We want to be getting points in the standings and staying ahead of the teams below us. These are big games for us. It’s a good opportunity for us to put our complete game together and go out as 20 guys and let our play carry on from there.”