Pittsburgh’s 2-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens in Game 5 at Mellon Arena on Saturday night not only gives the Penguins a 3-2 series advantage over the Canadiens – it allows them the chance to once again pull off a feat that has become like an old hat over the past two postseasons – picking up a series-clinching defeat on enemy soil.
Dating back to the Penguins’ 4-3 come-from-behind victory over the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 6 of the 2008 Eastern Conference quarterfinals the Penguins have clinched each of their past five postseason series with wins outside the friendly confines of Mellon Arena.
Now the Penguins have a chance to increase this unusual streak to six as they attempt to eliminate the Canadiens in Game 6 at the Bell Centre on Monday night. While the Penguins have become both familiar and comfortable in such a scenario, head coach Dan Bylsma knows it won’t be easy crossing the finish line in this “race to four.”
Montreal has one of the largest and most-devoted fan bases in professional sports, and when 21,273 Canadiens fans fill the Bell Centre on a particular night, they tend to make things tough on the visiting team with the energy and excitement they reign down from the stands.
At the same time, however, if the visiting team is able to get the Canadiens off their game and jump out to an early lead, sometimes the crowd can work against Montreal as the fans become frustrated. Pittsburgh has seen both ends of this spectrum – winning Game 3 at the Bell Centre but dropping a 3-2 affair two days later in Game 4 – and Bylsma knows which scenario he would like to see repeat itself on Monday.
“I can certainly say that Game 4 was probably the loudest I think I have ever heard it, but I probably thought that about three other times last year as well,” Bylsma said. “That is a unique and crazy environment. The loudness of the building, especially going off after Game 4 – I liked the sound of the building going off after Game 3 a whole lot more than Game 4 I know that. That was loud.”
No matter how loud the crowd gets leading up to and during Game 6, Bylsma is not worried with how his battle-tested squad will deal with the elements.
“They have been in some tough environments and some big and loud buildings, so to get the feel for that was good,” Bylsma said. “Even in Game 4 we had that experience where they were even louder and more rambunctious in the third period. That is going to suit us well because we are going to know what to expect going into Game 6.”
What the Penguins expect to do going into Game 6 is follow the exact road formula which has worked so well for them over the past three postseasons. During that period the Penguins have posted an exemplary 16-11 record away from the Igloo, including a 4-1 mark in 2010.
Pittsburgh’s success in other team’s buildings comes down to three main reasons.
First, instead of changing the way they play based upon whether they are at home or on the road, the Penguins under Bylsma use the same principles – moving the puck quickly from the defensive zone, managing pucks in the neutral zone, establishing a forecheck and offensive zone time, generating a ton of scoring chances and constantly taking the body – that lends to being able to win no matter the venue or situation.
“I think it speaks volumes for the way we play and the men in our room that regardless of where we are at and the circumstances, we are going to play a certain way,” Bylsma said. “We are going to play our game whether we are at home or on the road, up or down – you keep on playing that way. We need to keep that going.
“Playing in that environment is something you need to pay close attention to the first 10 minutes of the game. That is the puck management and the execution that allows your team to take some of the heat off the building. Getting to your game is another important aspect of it.”
A second reason why the Penguins are so adept at playing on the road is the advantage they have over pretty much every team in the league – strength down the middle. Throwing at least one of Sidney Crosby
, Evgeni Malkin
and Jordan Staal
over the boards on almost every shift makes Pittsburgh a nightmare matchup for most teams.
Because all three play with a diligence to detail in the offensive, defensive and neutral zones both offensively and defensively, the Penguins do not have to worry about avoiding or chasing particular matchups as much as other teams. Bylsma said he has no worries whether it is Staal’s unit or Crosby’s going head-to-head against first line of another team, and vice-versa.
“With the three centermen that we have – Crosby, Malkin and Staal – going onto the road, matchups aren’t imperative for us,” Bylsma said. “We don’t get out of whack trying to get away from matchups. We don’t worry too much about defensive matchups or about a line having to go out in the defensive zone. We have capable people on all those lines. I think we are comfortable going out over the boards and seeing the other team’s top line or second line go out against Staal, Malkin or Crosby.
“I think it speaks volumes for the way we play and the men in our room that regardless of where we are at and the circumstances, we are going to play a certain way. We are going to play our game whether we are at home or on the road, up or down – you keep on playing that way. We need to keep that going." - Dan Bylsma
“I think that’s something that suits our team well. We don’t have to panic or make adjustments. We don’t have to worry about those matchups. We need to go forward with our game plan and not get unfocused on some of the situations a road arena can bring you.”
Finally, all the noted success the Penguins have had on the road has given the team a sense of confidence that you don’t usually find when clubs are away from home. When you go into your archrival’s building and overcome a 3-0 deficit midway through the contest or clinch the Stanley Cup by slamming the door down the stretch against the defending champion, you definitely have different blueprints you can fall back on for whatever the situation entails.
“It does provide us with at least some memory of winning and doing it on the road,” Bylsma said. “I think that is a good thing. I think even this year we were a good team on the road. We won a lot of games on the road in some tough places. You need to do that and have that confidence. We will certainly draw upon that from our previous playoff experiences on the road this year.”
If the Penguins successfully draw upon their previous road experience Monday night they will be rewarded with their third consecutive trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, allowing them to become the first team to accomplish such a feat since the 1990-92 Boston Bruins. And they will also have another memorable road win to build upon as they continue marching forward on the path to repeating as Stanley Cup champions.