It seems like yesterday the Penguins raised their 2009 Stanley Cup championship banner to the rafters of Mellon Arena before opening the season with a 3-2 defeat of the New York Rangers. However, 44 days and 20 games have past as the Penguins reached the quarter pole of their season following Saturday’s scintillating 6-5 overtime victory against the Boston Bruins.
Head coach Dan Bylsma has stated often his desire to break the season into four segments, expecting something different to emerge in each fourth of the season regarding the development of what he expects his squad to morph into by the end of the season – a championship-caliber team.
“To reiterate what we said earlier about this being the time to lay the foundation and the expectations for how we want to play, how we are going to do things and how we want to get better as individuals and as a team,” Bylsma said.
I think our players and our team has a good understanding of what we do and how we do it in our systems and how we want to play. I think that atmosphere and that environment for getting better – that challenge – on and off the ice in games and video, I think we have done that. - Dan Bylsma
“I think our players and our team has a good understanding of what we do and how we do it in our systems and how we want to play. I think that atmosphere and that environment for getting better – that challenge – on and off the ice in games and video, I think we have done that.”
The foundation laid by Bylsma and the Penguins early in the season appears a reflection of the formula which turned their season around in late February of last season, fueling the dramatic postseason run to immortality.
No house will last the test of time without steady bricks at its base, and the Penguins have laid a few fairly impressive ones – namely a barrage of shots on goal, physicality at both ends of the rink, quality netminding and an ability to stay in a game no matter the score, venue or circumstance.
Through the first 20 games of the season Pittsburgh has fired 30 or more shots at the opposition 12 times, winning 10 of those games; outhit their opponent in 12 contests; received outstanding play from Marc-Andre Fleury
, who has thrust his name to the upper echelon of money goaltenders in starting the season a perfect 8-0; and kept fans at the edge of their seats with late-game comebacks against the New York Islanders, Florida Panthers, Columbus Blue Jackets and Boston Bruins to send each of those games past regulation with late third-period tallies, and then they sealed the deal each time.
Challenge would be a great word to describe the first six weeks of the season, as the Penguins have encountered numerous hardships in registering a 13-7 record, tied with the Calgary Flames for the fifth-best point total (26) in the National Hockey League.
“In terms of what has happened on the ice, we got off to a really good start,” Bylsma said. “I think we all knew we weren’t as good as we were going to be playing (later in the season) or weren’t playing how we totally want to. We won some games and got off to a great start. It was fantastic.”
Healthy and almost machine-like through the first 13 games of the season, the Penguins got off to an 11-2 start, including a 4-0 sweep of a four-game, seven-day road swing beginning the second week of the season. Just when it appeared nothing could stop them from running rampant through the NHL, the injury bug reared its ugly face.
Beginning with a 5-1 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Oct. 20 the Penguins lost in the following order: Sergei Gonchar (broken left wrist), Evgeni Malkin
(shoulder strain), Tyler Kennedy
(undisclosed), Kris Letang
(shoulder strain), Brooks Orpik
(lower body) and most recently, Chris Kunitz
Factor in Max Talbot, who has yet to play following offseason shoulder surgery, and the Penguins have already suffered 66 man-game lost to injury. Even still, the team refuses to use this as an excuse, as they have rallied around their misfortune rather than let it deflate them.
“It would be nice to get everybody back but we aren’t going to worry about that,” Bill Guerin said. “We play with the guys we have in uniform that night. When we get guys back it will be great, but until then, we will just play with who we have.”
“At parts of the season you are going deal with certain bumps and have some adversity. Now we have started to deal with some adversity,” Bylsma said. “I think it is a good thing because a team has to go through some struggles and we are doing that right now.”
With the compressed schedule due to the Olympic break in February, this year’s first quarter has flown by faster than a normal season.
“This has been a unique 20 games because (the games) are closer together than a normal 20 games,” Bylsma said. “Usually at the beginning of the year the 20 games are spaced and you have more practice time and more time to do video on an individual basis. This one has been hard.
“I think there will sill be some of that going on for the next 10 games or so. I think we have established that.”
As they put the finishing touches on their foundation in the coming weeks, the Penguins transition to the next phase of their season – turning that foundation into an identity.
“I think for me, games 21-40 is really about building the team, the roles on the team individually and team building. We need to get our identity, which we have started to establish. We want to be honing that identity in the next 20 games so that by the time we get to the 40-game mark teams should know what they are going to get when they come to our building or they play our team.
“I am going to have to go against that guy on the penalty kill because they have a great penalty-killing unit. Their checking line or their third line is a top line. We should have a great idea of our team, our identity and our roles within the team. That will be a big focus in the next 20 games.”