Not many would have found it surprising if somebody predicted back in early summer the Pittsburgh Penguins would begin the season with a record of 5-1-0. They were coming off the franchise’s third Stanley Cup victory, after all.
Such a statement would have been slightly unexpected, however, considering four of the team’s first six games were to be played away from the friendly confines of Mellon Arena, where the team is backed by an above-capacity crowd on a nightly basis. Factor in that only two Penguin teams, the 1994-95 and 2006-07 editions, had began a season 4-0-0 on the road, and the recipe for a fast start did not look to be in front of the Penguins.
If the Penguins are able to head to Carolina and pick up their fifth road win of the season Wednesday night, they would set a new franchise record for consecutive road wins at the start of the season.
But this is a Penguin team under the direction of head coach Dan Bylsma that is unlike most previous teams in their 43-year existence. These Penguins have unofficially developed the “road warrior” moniker. Since Bylsma took over on Feb. 14 of last season, the team has a record of 12-2-3 on the road.
Veteran winger Bill Guerin, who knows a thing or two about winning hockey as a two-time Stanley Cup champion, is not surprised at the Penguins’ success away from home.
I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. First of all I think we’re good. I think we’re not easily intimidated by visiting buildings or visiting crowds. We know it’s harder to play on the road and we prepare for that. I think we enjoy it. This team for some reason seems to thrive at playing on the road. - Bill Guerin
“I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. First of all I think we’re good. I think we’re not easily intimidated by visiting buildings or visiting crowds. We know it’s harder to play on the road and we prepare for that. I think we enjoy it. This team for some reason seems to thrive at playing on the road.”
Thriving on the road began with the first extended trip the team took under Bylsma’s direction, a five-game swing from February 27-March 8 of last season. With their playoff position in a perilous state, the Penguins reeled off victories in all five games, including an overtime victory to begin the trip, and a shootout win to conclude it.
Success away from home continued for the Penguins during the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs. In marching to the championship, Pittsburgh clinched all four of their series on the road, including two decisive Game 7s: the first a 6-2 rout of the Washington Capitals in the conference semifinals and the thrilling 2-1 defeat of the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena which clinched the Stanley Cup.
“The experience definitely helps,” defenseman Mark Eaton said. “Being in those environments in the playoffs last year teaches you how to win on the road. You can absolutely build off of that experience.”
Guerin agreed with Eaton’s assessment.
“For such a young team, a lot of guys have been through so much already,” he said. “That’s never an easy thing to win on the road, especially in the playoffs, and we’ve done that. I think that definitely helps…those were opportunities to close teams out and we did.”
Another reason the Penguins have jumped out to such a hot start on the road is the familiarity and closeness that comes when a team is able to maintain as much continuity as the Penguins have in a salary-cap world.
Of the 22 players on the active roster, only five were not with the Penguins last season, while 10 players, nearly half the team, have been with the Penguins for three years or longer. Such limited turnover has enabled the players to develop a closeness with one another that allows them to come together as a collective unit when adversity strikes.
“Everybody is competitive in this league…It’s never easy,” noted defenseman Sergei Gonchar. “At the same time the experience factor is helping. You know what to do and what to expect in those situations.
“Another thing is that this group is so close and it’s a big thing to be close when you’re on the road. That gives you a chance to spend some time together. It’s helping. There are a few factors and when you put them together it gives you that success.”
Success has come from all parts of the Penguins’ lineup, and not just usual suspects: Sidney Crosby
, Evgeni Malkin
and Marc-Andre Fleury
. Such a fact has not been lost on Bylsma.
“Right now, the strength of our team is that we’ve done it in several different ways. It hasn’t been one formula. It hasn’t been certain guys. It hasn’t been just the power play or the goaltender.
“One night it’s Geno and Sid, another it’s the power play, another it’s TK (Tyler Kennedy
) getting the two goals; Craig Adams
On the current road swing, where the team has won three of the four games in this 4-0-0 road start, five players have recorded points in each of the games, and neither Crosby nor Malkin’s names appear on that list. Kennedy has scored the game winner in two of the four road wins, while Jordan Staal
has scored a goal in each of the past three games.
In Monday night’s win over the Senators the Penguins got a huge contribution late in the game from their special teams.
“(Monday) night our penalty kill came up big in the third (period) in the five-on-three where we haven’t been as sharp,” Bylsma observed. “We were tested (that) night with a long amount of time and we did a great job. We sealed the game with that.”
Two nights prior to the Ottawa game it was the power play that provided the difference with a season-high three tallies with the extra man.
Despite the early success away from home, and the many ways they’ve gone about achieving such success, Bylsma is not satisfied.
“There are other areas we need to get better. But when you’re team is contributing in different spots, that’s how you get wins on the road.”