The Penguins’ rise from the 10th spot in the Eastern Conference standings to the fourth seed and earning home-ice advantage in the opening round of the playoffs in less than two months is nothing short of remarkable.
Pittsburgh was five points out of the playoffs with 25 games left on Feb. 15 when Dan Bylsma was named interim head coach. The Penguins’ rolled to an exhilarating 18-3-4 finish in a meteoric rise from obscurity to playoff series host.
“At some point people were doubting that we would make the playoffs,” goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury
said. “And here we are with home(-ice) advantage. We have a big challenge ahead of us. I’m confident going into the playoffs.”
“Our opponent doesn’t change, how we approach the series doesn’t change, how we prepare doesn’t change,” Bylsma said. “We get the benefit of one more game if it comes to that. It’s something that we were hoping for and wanted to get but it doesn’t change a lot.”
Still, heading into last weekend home-ice advantage, while mathematically possible, seemed improbable. The Penguins were trying to jump two teams (Carolina, Philadelphia) with time running out. The chips were stacked against the Penguins and they needed to get lucky on the River card.
The Penguins battle for home-ice advantage really materialized last Thursday when Pittsburgh defeated the New York Islanders, 6-1, to pull into a three-way tie for the fourth seed at 97 points with Carolina and Philadelphia.
Carolina, which had won its nine straight games prior to that Thursday, lost its final two games and dropped its chance at finishing No. 4.
Pittsburgh owned the tie-breaker over Philadelphia by virtue of having won more games but the Flyers had one game-in-hand on the Penguins. Pittsburgh turned up the heat with its 3-1 win at Montreal. The Flyers kept pace with a 3-2 win on Long Island, setting the stage for a dramatic showdown with the Rangers Sunday. The Flyers needed to gain one point to secure the fourth seed.
Fleury hosted several Penguins players at his home to watch the Flyers-Rangers game, as well as a little golf.
“We relaxed, watched the Masters a bit and watched the Philly-Rangers game a little bit; we switched back and forth,” Jordan Staal
said. “We were watching the Masters more than anything but every time we switched back we were excited. We couldn’t really believe it. We watched the last five minutes and we were on our toes the whole time wondering what was going to happen.”
The Rangers erased 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 deficits, scoring two goals in the third period to defeat the Flyers, 4-3, and ruining Philadelphia’s home-ice advantage.
“We had better luck when we were watching the Masters,” defenseman Rob Scuderi said. “Every time we’d change it back the Rangers were either tied up or winning so we kept changing it to the Masters. When we came back to the game (Philadelphia) had lost.”
All the cards fell in Pittsburgh’s favor and Game 1 of the opening round of the playoffs will be at Mellon Arena Wednesday at 7 p.m.
“We definitely got lucky,” Bill Guerin said. “The game in Montreal ended up being big and the Flyers-Rangers game went our way. That’s the way it worked out. We’re pretty thankful for that.”
“We’re very pleased with having a home-ice advantage,” Scuderi said. “We knew we were going to play Philly one way or another. The home ice is nice but if you’re going to go far into the playoffs you’re going to have to win some road games anyway.”
Having the home-ice advantage proved advantageous last season in Pittsburgh’s run to the Stanley Cup Final. The Penguins opened all three Eastern Conference playoff series at home and went 8-0 in Pittsburgh to earn a berth in the Final.
The Penguins ability to win the first two games at home really put the pressure on their opponents.
“It’s a great advantage, certainly having the first two games (at home),” Scuderi said. “Last year I think in every series we had home ice we had that two-game jump and put the other team in the hole and made them start thinking about it.”
“It’s a boost if you can start well at home and put pressure on that team going back into their building,” Sidney Crosby
said. “But you have to use it. You still have to win those games. If you can start off well at home you put a lot of pressure on them.”
Games 1, 3 and 5 are pivotal games in a series as history will represent. You want to establish your team and your game as quickly as you can. Home ice often provides that for you. It’s about what happens on the ice and taking advantage of the situations you’re in. We’re going to try and do that for Game 1. - Dan Bylsma
“Games 1, 3 and 5 are pivotal games in a series as history will represent,” Bylsma said. “You want to establish your team and your game as quickly as you can. Home ice often provides that for you. It’s about what happens on the ice and taking advantage of the situations you’re in. We’re going to try and do that for Game 1.”
But of course the most pivotal game is any series in Game 7. In a do-or-die game, every team wants to play in its own house with its crowd’s support.
“If you’re involved in a seventh game you definitely want it to be in your building,” Guerin said. “It’s something nice that we’ve got.”
“It’s great to start at home and for a Game 7 situation, it will help there,” Crosby said. “It’s nice to get. It’s not everything but who would of thought we’d have a chance at home ice so we’re happy to get it. We were looking to just get into the playoffs and once we got in, we wanted a little bit more. We’re happy to start here.”
The Penguins are eager to get the postseason started and hope to kickoff the playoffs with a positive outcome on Wednesday.
“Games 1 and 2, you can get that lead and put the team on their heels when they have to go back into their building,” Chris Kunitz
said. “All it is, is about winning four games. It doesn’t matter when it comes. You have a race to win four games and right now we’ll focus on Game 1.”