|Sidney Crosby and the Penguins begin their final homestand at Mellon Arena on Saturday.
March has been a brutal month for the Penguins in terms of travel. The team has spent seven of the past nine games away from home, taken on no less than seven probable playoff teams – with five of those contests occurring in hostile environments – and will be playing their fourth set of back-to-back games this weekend when they host the Philadelphia Flyers and Toronto Maple Leafs at Mellon Arena. And don’t forget reigning Art Ross and Conn Smythe Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin
has missed four of the past five games with a foot injury.
With all these factors added into the equation, the Penguins have survived the tough stretch rather well, posting an impressive 6-3-3 record, which has allowed the team to remain tied atop the Atlantic Division standings with the New Jersey Devils. Both teams have 91 points, although the Devils have one game in hand on the Penguins.
Finishing ahead of the Devils over the next three weeks is critical to the players in the Penguins locker room. With the way things look now, the winner of the Atlantic Division stands a great chance at securing the No. 2 seed in the conference, which would provide home-ice advantage until at least the Conference Finals. A second-place finish in the division would drop the loser to the No. 4 seed, setting up a tougher first-round matchup, and almost guarantee having to overcome a home-ice disadvantage over the last two rounds to successfully navigate through the East.
“We need these points,” Marc-Andre Fleury
said. “It is going to be good to be home. If you look at the standings, it is better to have home-ice advantage in the playoffs. I think (this upcoming homestand is) big in terms of the home-ice advantage. That is our goal to finish ahead of the Devils in the division.”
The march through the home stretch begins on Saturday when the Penguins’ 1 p.m. matinee with the archrival Philadelphia Flyers opens the final six-game regular-season homestand of Mellon Arena’s history. While the fans are going to want to send the Igloo out in style over the next two weeks, the players and coaches simply want to continue the Penguins’ strong play within the Pittsburgh city limits.
Since dropping a 4-1 decision to the Ottawa Senators on Jan. 28, the Penguins have posted a robust 5-0-3 mark at home, increasing their overall home record in March/April the past three seasons to a gaudy 19-1-2.
Last season the Penguins closed out March with an eight-game homestand, the longest in Mellon Arena history. Pittsburgh went 6-1-1, improving their playoff positioning from the brink of missing the postseason tournament altogether to a No. 4 seed when all was said and done. The players are looking at this year’s stretch in the same light.
“It always helps to play well at home down the stretch,” Mark Eaton said. “You look at last year in particular – we were so good at Mellon Arena in the playoffs. That is where we want to get. We want to always be playing our best hockey but that is especially true at home.
“We have six games here at home. We want to start establishing ourselves at home and make it a place where teams don’t want to come. Being as close as it is to the playoffs, I think that is essential. We also need to use these six games to get ourselves into playoff mode. We don’t really think we are playing playoff hockey yet so we want to make sure we are making strides to do that here.”
If the Penguins don’t believe they are playing playoff hockey right now, look out when they hit their stride. When they do ‘find their game,’ as head coach Dan Bylsma likes to refer, the path could be set for another lengthy championship run.
Over the past two postseasons the Penguins have held the home-ice advantage in five of their eight playoff series. During that time the Penguins have been almost unbeatable in Pittsburgh, going a combined 18-3.
When asked about that record, forward Pascal Dupuis
gave credit to the Penguins’ strong fan base, which helps make Mellon Arena an intimidating venue thanks to the presence of waving towels, a sea of white and the outdoor screen which only adds to the atmosphere and mystique.
“It is a good chance to win some big home games because we are going to have to be able to win them in the playoffs,” Dupuis said. “We want to get comfortable at Mellon Arena and show everybody this is our home and that we are going to be really hard to beat in front of our fans.”
And those fans are no doubt going to be electrified during this homestand as the Penguins take on their two fiercest rivals, the Flyers and Washington Capitals over the next six games. Nothing enhances the emotions of Pittsburgh fans more than watching Scott Hartnell and Alex Ovechkin, villains in these parts, take the ice.
Eaton said the added hoopla that marquee opponents bring to the table is good for the Penguins as they mentally prepare for playoff mode.
“We look forward to playing Philly and facing Washington here next week,” Eaton said. “It will be a good tune-up, which is something we are all looking forward to.”
Although the players will have much of their focus on picking up as many points as possible and getting their game into playoff mode, Dupuis also hopes everybody associated with the Penguins takes the time to appreciate these final days at the Igloo.
“We know that closing down this building means we get a new arena next year, but at the same time there is a lot of history in Mellon Arena,” he said. “In the last 20 years there have been three Stanley Cups won. Even for me there have been a lot of great moments and I’ve only been here two-and-a-half years. It’s a special place. This is going to be fun.”