(PRESS RELEASE: Penguins playoff schedule)
The Stanley Cup playoffs can be described as a grueling, intense and a hard-fought test of team character and skill.
That’s exactly why the Penguins are looking forward to playing in the postseason for the first time since 2001.
“It’s so exciting. You’re in the NHL playoffs and that’s where you always want to be,” center Max Talbot said. “Ever since you were growing up, you wanted to have a chance to win the Stanley Cup and all 16 teams in the playoffs have that chance. That’s what you play for.”
Entering the first round series against Ottawa, the young Penguins had no NHL playoff experience together as a group. Yet, that doesn’t faze the team. It does quite the contrary, actually.
“They have no fear, that’s the scary part of our team. The second half of the season, this is when we’re at our best because we have no fear,” Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. “We’re getting better and better. I like the atmosphere of our team. We’re still getting better and still learning. It’s a process with us.”
The Penguins surprised many this season. Individually and collectively, the players took a huge leap in their development and produced 105 points after finishing with only 58 a year ago – the fourth-best single-season turnaround in NHL history.
“There’s no doubt. We’re a young team. We’re looking to get better and better every month and every year. We have a long-term plan and a short-term plan. That young team surprised a lot of people and they deserve a lot of respect for that,” Therrien said. “They surprised the management and the coaching staff – they are a fun group to work with. They are having fun together; there is great chemistry and, as a group, they want to win. That is a really big quality.”
The Penguins must continue their progression in the playoffs, where lessons learned can be tougher. Nevertheless, Therrien is confident in the team’s moxie despite its youth.
“It’s a totally different game in the playoffs. The emotion is there,” he said. “What I like about our team is that, when the emotion is there, that’s when we’re at our best. Sometimes teams, when the emotion is there, teams get tight, but not us. For us, throughout the course of the season when we have to play emotional games, that’s when we were at our best.”
The Penguins will turn to Mark Recchi, Gary Roberts and Sergei Gonchar for postseason advice. Recchi has two Stanley Cup championship rings, including one last year in Carolina, while Roberts has one. Gonchar has not won a championship, but had played in 58 playoff games in his career before this season.
“It’s very exciting. I have playoff experience in junior and the AHL, but it’s not like the NHL,” goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. “I have always watched them on TV and have heard from the guys how awesome it is, so I am looking forward to it.”
Even though roughly three-quarters of the Penguins’ roster had no NHL playoff experience heading into their first-round series, they have experienced playoff hockey before at the junior, college or AHL level. Several of the Penguins have played internationally in the high-pressure World Junior Championship, World Championship or Winter Olympic tournaments, too.
“It’s different, but it’s still playoff experience,” Fleury said. “I think with the good veterans that we have on the team, I am sure they can help us out through the course of the playoffs.”
In addition, seven Penguins (Michel Ouellet, Colby Armstrong, Rob Scuderi, Alain Nasreddine, Ryan Whitney, Brooks Orpik and Fleury) were part of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton club, coached by Therrien, that advanced to the Calder Cup Finals in 2004, but fell to the Milwaukee Admirals. Coincidentally, Penguins general manager Ray Shero, an assistant general manager with Nashville that season, oversaw all operations of the Admirals – the Predators’ top minor-league affiliate.
Many more Penguins gained additional postseason experience last season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton as that team advanced to the second round of the AHL playoffs.
“I had a chance to win in the playoffs when I was younger in juniors,” said Talbot, who is a two-time recipient of the Guy Lafleur Trophy as MVP of the QMJHL playoffs (2003, ’04). “It’s the best feeling and now I have a chance to win the Stanley Cup. When you’re growing up, your goal is to win the Cup.”
Nevertheless, the lessons learned in the playoffs will be valuable ones for the young Penguins team as it continues to grow together.
“For sure,” Fleury said. “I think we can play together for a couple years, so that will be fun for us to go through it together and learn from it.”