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Penguins Look to Pass Tough Test on Their Upcoming Road Swing

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
On the road again -

Just can't wait to get on the road again.
The life I love is making music with my friends.
And I can't wait to get on the road again.

Willie Nelson turned the above lyrics from “On the Road Again” into his ninth No. 1 single on the Billboard Country Music chart in 1980. Forgive the Pittsburgh Penguins if they feel as though the song was written to describe their month of January as the team embarks on an upcoming five-game road swing while they are in the midst of playing nine of 11 games away from Mellon Arena.
Brooks Orpik and the Penguins posted a 4-2 victory over the Minnesota Wild in their last visit to the Xcel Energy Center on Oct. 30, 2007.
Photo Credit - Getty Images

Beginning with Saturday night’s tilt in Toronto on “Hockey Night in Canada,” the Penguins will play five games in eight days covering three time zones, including a set of back-to-back contests. It’s a daunting challenge, for sure, but if this team has proved anything over the past 12 months, they’ve shown they will never blink in the face of adversity.

“We really haven’t been at home all that much,” Matt Cooke said. “I think when you’re gearing up for a trip like this you’re able to focus and able to play hockey. It’s every other night and there’s a back-to-back (situation) so there is no time to do anything else but prepare yourself to play hockey.”  

Since head coach Dan Bylsma took over the reigns on Feb. 15, 2009, the Penguins have posted a robust 21-11-3 mark in opponents’ buildings, including a 13-9 record this season. Only the New Jersey Devils and Washington Capitals have recorded more road points in the Eastern Conference and their 13 road wins is tied for fourth-best in the National Hockey League.

This road trip is coming at a good time for the Penguins, who have gone 3-7 over their past 10 games. Like Cooke said, they will get to spend the next week-plus focusing just on hockey, and recent precedent from the past two regular seasons has shown long road trips, especially the excursion into Western Canada at the back end of the trip, have done wonders to get the Penguins back on track.

“Anytime you go on the road … You kind of really get back to basics and everyone’s together,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “You get that team feeling. So, it’s probably a good time for us.

“We know it’s going to be a tough trip. We’ve had a few of these over the past couple of years and had success, so we have to do the same thing here.”

Maxime Talbot's goal at the beginning of the third period helped the Penguins rebound from a 2-0 deficit to record a 4-2 victory on their last trip to Edmonton on Dec. 5, 2007.
Credit - Getty Images
Two seasons ago the Penguins entered the season with enormous expectations after a 47-point improvement the previous season made them the darlings of the NHL. But, when they left on Dec. 4, 2007 for a three-game trip to Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver, their record stood at only 12-12-2.

Thanks to a huge game-tying goal against the Oilers by Kris Letang and then back-to-back shootout defeats of the Flames and Canucks courtesy of game-deciding goals by Letang, the Penguins’ record improved to 15-12-2 by the time they crossed customs to return to the United States. They would go on to win 11 of their next 16 games en route to an Atlantic Division title and a trip to the 2008 Stanley Cup Final.

Last season the defending Eastern Conference champions were sitting on the outside looking in at the playoff field on Feb. 26, and were coming off a 5-2 loss at Washington and a hard fought 1-0 defeat of the lowly New York Islanders as they prepared for a season-defining five-game voyage.

With many people ready to bury them, the Penguins went out and bested the Chicago Blackhawks, Dallas Stars, Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and Washington by a combined score of 20-10 to sweep the trip. It was the most successful road trip in franchise history and I think we all know the springboard that led to.

While the prior blueprint is still in the memory bank, these Penguins realize you are only as good as your next game. With such a tough gauntlet in front of them they know they have to play some of their best hockey of the season if they hope to come home with the fuel for another second-half surge.

“It is going to be a tough road trip,” Bill Guerin said. “We are playing some good hockey teams. We are going to have to be at our best. We are going into some tough buildings. This is going to be a good test for us.”

In one regard, test might not be an accurate barometer of what looms ahead during the next nine days. Rather, mid-term exam might be a more apt description due to the degree of difficulty that lies in front of them.

Of the five teams they play, here are their home records over their past 10 games: Toronto, 6-2-2; Minnesota, 7-3; Calgary, 6-2-2; Edmonton, 1-7-2; Vancouver, 8-2. You don’t need to make the Dean’s list to see other than the Oilers all of these teams have more than taken care of business over the past month.

But the Penguins aren’t the kid who daydreams his way through class. They are the workaholic who spends hours upon hours in the library preparing to ace the exam. When you look at the numbers posted by the Penguins in some of these venues in recent years and you hear the team talk about the trek in front of them, you realize this team has a great chance to come home with the “A” on their report card.
Kris Letang won back-to-back games against Calgary and Vancouver on the Penguins' previous excursion to Western Canada in December 2007.
Photo Credit - Getty Images

“Sometimes that’s what you need when you’re struggling to win games at times - have a change of scenery and get on the road,” Mark Eaton said. “A lot of times when we’ve been on the road a lot we play simpler, gritty, quote-on-quote dirtier games. A lot of times that’s what you need when you’re struggling to win.”

The outstanding home records of these teams are like the tough test questions that can beat down the average student. Why will the Penguins be different? Because of the work they have done to get themselves ready for the big exam.

In their most recent stop in Toronto the Penguins soundly defeated the Maple Leafs, 5-2, on Oct. 10 of this season behind two power-play goals from Sidney Crosby. While Minnesota, whom the Penguins will face on Monday, came away with a 2-1 victory earlier this season, it was the Penguins who rode two Evgeni Malkin tallies to a 4-2 win on their last trip to the Xcel Energy Center on Oct. 30, 2007.

The positives don’t stop there.

Yes, back-to-back contests at Calgary and Edmonton will make for some tired legs. But on the flip side the Penguins have gone 7-2-1 against the Flames since 1998-98, including a 3-2-1 mark in Calgary. They have been just as good against the Oilers, emerging victorious in three of their last four trips there and posting a 6-2-1 overall record against them since ’99-00.

Vancouver might have walked away from Mellon Arena with a 2-1 win last season but in the previous 11 games between the two teams it has been Pittsburgh owning a decided edge with a 7-3-1 record. The Penguins are 24-23-4 all-time in Vancouver.

When you combine the above numbers with the fact that Pittsburgh’s 27 victories are actually the same amount recorded by Vancouver, two more than the Flames and the other three teams reside in the bottom of their divisions – the Penguins should feel very good about getting back on track. If they take the advice of their veteran leader, Guerin, the Penguins will fly back home with three scintillating road trips in three years.

“I just think this is one of those times we have to get back and work on our game,” Guerin said. “I have to make sure I am doing the right thing. If everybody does that then we will be OK.”

The Penguins will be more than OK. They will be “On the Road Again.” Except for this time, that road will be the path back to Eastern Conference supremacy.

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