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Penguins Ready for Defending Champs

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins
There is no shortage of story options for Sunday’s matinee matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings at Mellon Arena at 12:30 p.m.

There’s the Stanley Cup rematch from last season. There’s the Marian Hossa defection from Pittsburgh to Detroit. There’s also the Ty Conklin defection from the Penguins to the Red Wings. Add on top of all that, it’s a nationally televised game airing on NBC.

But this game is about more than hoopla for Pittsburgh. The Penguins, who were last year’s Eastern Conference Champions, find themselves battling for their playoff lives and desperately need a win to keep pace in the postseason picture.

“There are a lot of story lines for sure,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “For us we don’t want to really look too far into it and make sure that we just keep playing the same way that we’re playing. If we can bring added motivation then great, but we just want to make sure that we play the same way.”

The last time the Red Wings were in Mellon Arena, the club hoisted the Stanley Cup following a 3-2 victory in Game 6 of the Final. There is no doubt that Pittsburgh would like to extract a little revenge on Detroit but the Penguins, who are riding back-to-back victories, are more concerned with gaining two points in the standings.

“It’s going to be a big game,” head coach Michel Therrien said. “For us we need to focus and carry those last two games into tomorrow. The emotion is there. We played hard. We deserved to win. Sometimes the result is not going to be there but if you stick with it, in the end the result should be there. It’s encouraging to see the way that we’re battling, especially with a game against Detroit (Sunday).”

Pittsburgh did gain a moral victory with an incredible 7-6 overtime win against the Red Wings Nov. 11 in Detroit. The Penguins pulled off a dramatic third-period comeback in what is arguably the best game this season in the NHL.

“We had a huge win there, a character win,” Crosby said. “There was a lot of emotion in that game with what happened last year. I don’t think that’s disappeared. It’s probably going to be the same way (Sunday). That’s just the way a rivalry works and how it’s developed.”

Pittsburgh overcame deficits of 3-1, 5-2 and 6-4 to pull out the victory in Detroit. Jordan Staal was the hero for the Penguins in November. He scored a hat trick – with all three goals in the third period – and assisted on the overtime winning goal.

“It was a big comeback for us,” Staal remembered. “It was a big boost for me. It started me getting some points and getting my confidence back up. It was pretty special. The guys were pretty excited and I was too. It was a big game for all of us.”

Staal scored his three goals in a span of 11:18 minutes and buried the game-tying goal with 22.8 seconds left in regulation to force overtime. On the overtime winning play, he backchecked Pavel Datsyuk, a reliable possession player, and forced a turnover. He skated into the zone wide right, pulling Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood high and to his far right. Staal sent a rifle, cross-ice pass to Ruslan Fedotenko. Osgood was completely out of position to make a save and threw his body towards the puck. But Fedotenko had already buried a one-timer into the net for a Penguins victory.

“I remember Staalsy’s third period and how well he played there,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “Physically he was dominant. It took him two periods to get going. It seemed like him versus everyone else (in the third). When you get a guy leading that kind of way it’s hard for everyone else not to follow suit.

“Anytime you give up six (goals) to them you’re not going to win very often. It was definitely a game that sticks out, especially for Staalsy. Chances are if we give up six (Sunday), we’re not going to win. There will probably be a lot less scoring in that one.”

Still, the game’s importance can’t be stressed enough for the Penguins. They currently sit in the 10th spot in the East, one point behind Florida for the eighth spot. But the Panthers have played three less games than Pittsburgh, so the Penguins have to make up ground and collect as many points as possible down the stretch.

“This is definitely a big game for us,” Staal said. “We want the two points no matter what. It’s that much more special playing against this team considering how good they are and what they accomplished last year. We want to get back at them.”

“Our mindset is there,” Crosby said. “We’ve seen some good results and that’s encouraging. I think whatever happened the last week, coming into this game our motivation will be there. There’s no excuse for that. We just have to go out there and make sure we’re playing the right way.”

The stretch run doesn’t get any easier after Detroit for the Penguins. Up on the slate following the defending Stanley Cup Champions are the San Jose Sharks, the top team in the Western Conference standings.

Therrien is preaching that the Penguins take a one-game approach.

“It’s about thinking about the next game,” Therrien said. “We can’t think about San Jose this week and we can’t start looking ahead. Let’s take it one game at a time. Let’s make sure we give our best effort one game at a time and when we play that game, our mentality should be that this is the most important game. When this one is over then let’s think about the other one.

“We can’t look ahead. Let’s make sure our focus is at the right place. Our focus has to be for our game against Detroit.”

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