The Penguins were just happy to make the Stanley Cup playoffs last year.
This season, they want more than just an appearance.
Following the team’s 105-point finish in 2006-07, the young Penguins entered the postseason for the first time since 2001. However, three-quarters of the team’s roster had never experienced playoff hockey at the NHL level.
The Ottawa Senators upended Pittsburgh, 4-1, in the opening round series. While it was a disappointing result, the Penguins learned some valuable lessons in that series.
“Last year, we obviously didn’t want it to happen, but it was a learning curve for us,” Penguins center Jordan Staal said. “I think we know what to expect coming into Game 1. Hopefully we’ll come out strong at home. It’s going to be different than last year and hopefully we’re ready for it.”
Last season, the Penguins were in the midst of a 47-point improvement from the 2005-06 season, which was the fourth-biggest turnaround in NHL history from one year to the next. The team was in contention for the Atlantic Division title down the stretch, but fell just short.
That turnaround and playoff berth sparked high expectations for the team this year. However, the Penguins are focused on maintaining their progress.
“We weren’t really even expected to make the playoffs last year,” Staal said. “This year, our expectations were to make the playoffs and make a run for it. I think the ‘wow factor’ is probably a lot less of a factor now and we’re really focused on what we can do this year.
“We all learned from it last year and it’s pretty much the same group of guys in the dressing room here now,” he continued. “I think we learned a lot and everyone on this team wants to have a better playoffs and really show what we can do.”
The Penguins certainly did that down the stretch in the regular season. They went 10-5-2 in March to soar to the Atlantic Division title – their first division crown since the 1997-98 campaign.
“We knew with the year we had last year, it’d be pretty hard to repeat that,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “This year, we just wanted to make sure we played good hockey and were consistent. I think we were able to do that through a lot of adversity and the division is probably stronger than it was last year. I think that’s definitely something we should be proud of.”
The Penguins extended their home dominance, too. A 4-2 win over the Flyers to wrap up their regular-season home schedule gave the team a point in its 11th-straight home game (9-0-2). The Penguins are 19-2-3 in their last 24 contests at Mellon Arena.
So, winning the division and securing home-ice advantage are even more impressive feats when you consider the multitude of injuries to key personnel the team endured throughout this season.
“We’ve come a long way and for a young team like this to win the division is quite an accomplishment,” Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. “The No. 1 goal was to make the playoffs. We ended up losing Sidney Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury and many guys through the course of the season. We just tried to maintain our focus and our position to make the playoffs and those guys surprised me with their commitment and they deserve a lot of credit.”
The final stretch of games against division opponents proved to be a good playoff primer for the team – almost like a series of eight playoff games before the playoffs began.
“I think that is something that we talked about – making sure we were playing the right way,” Crosby said. “Sometimes you’re going to lose because you’re playing desperate teams every night. They are playing hard, too, and there are going to be games that don’t go your way. A perfect example is the game we lost to the Rangers (in overtime on March 31). They are playing desperate hockey. We played a good second half and probably deserved to get more than a point as the game went on, but that’s how it goes and you have to find ways to win tight games.”
Now, the Penguins will try to translate the lessons learned from last postseason, along with the steps the team took this year to overcome an abundance of adversity, into a long playoff run.
“I think we’ll just be a little bit calmer, if anything, and know that we have to raise our level. We can’t just go in there and expect it to be the same kind of hockey,” Crosby said. “It’s going to be more intense and more physical and harder to score goals. I think after last year, we’re going to realize that”.
Ryan Malone agrees. He and the rest of the Penguins learned how to adapt to playoff hockey.
“For a lot of us, it was our first time in the playoffs and you don’t realize how simple you have to play,” he said. “Really, you have to just move the puck up the ice and keep it going forward and shoot everything you can. The bounces will sometimes go your way. I think the simpler hockey we play and all the skill and everything will come into play after that. Right now, if we have everyone buying in, we like our chances against everybody. We’re all excited to get going.”