Even though Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan gave his team the option of not skating this morning heading into Game 1 against the New York Rangers, almost everybody took the ice for practice.
“The energy’s there, the excitement’s there and you can tell by the skate today – it was an optional skate but you see everybody on the ice,” forward Eric Fehr said. “You can tell all the guys are excited.”
It was noteworthy that so many players participated, especially since Fehr admitted the boys were tired of practicing after two intense sessions at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex on Monday and Tuesday. But there was certainly a different feel surrounding this session, especially when it came to the amount of reporters surrounding the dressing room after it.
“It’s a little more crowded in the locker room after the skate,” noted defenseman Ian Cole with a smile. “There’s quite a few people here, which is good because it’s playoffs. Lot more added attention, but that’s the way it is. And so far this year we’ve done a really good job of blocking out the noise and just playing well. So we’re going to continue to do that.”
The noise the guys want to hear will be from their fans.
“I think it’s going to be great to try and get our crowd into it early,” Fehr said. “Obviously come playoff time you fight for your home ice advantage. You want the crowd behind you and it’s always nice to score one early and get them really into it.”
Forwards Beau Bennett, Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust and netminders Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry were the only players who did not participate in morning skate.
Marc-Andre Fleury was the first goalie off the ice for Pittsburgh, but Sullivan declined to say whether or not he would be starting in net tonight.
“I didn’t watch the morning skate, but we’re certainly aware of where our guys are at and we’ll make a game-time decision,” Sullivan said.
That status goes for defenseman Olli Maatta as well, who has skated with the team for three straight days after missing the last 9 regular-season games with a lower-body injury. Both he and Sullivan are happy with the progress he’s made going from week-to-week to game-time.
“He’s had a few strong practices,” Sullivan said. “I think his conditioning level is terrific. He’s an extremely hard worker. He’s a very fit guy. He takes care of himself off the ice. It’s not a surprise to me that he progresses the way he progresses because he’s such a hard worker and the way he takes care of himself.”
“Our training staff, I have to thank them a lot,” Maatta added. “I'm happy I'm here now, and I'm close to playing. And it's exciting.”
With it being an optional skate, the Pens did not do line rushes. But if Maatta does re-enter the lineup, he’s confident that the blue line won’t miss a beat.
“I don’t think you really need to worry about that too much,” he said. “We play a lot together. It doesn’t matter who I play with or who anybody else plays with. We’re a good enough D group that anybody who you play with is going to play to make the game easier for you.”
VIEW FROM THE OTHER SIDE
While the Rangers may not have home-ice advantage in this series, they’re at least going to be in a familiar setting.
“You know this building,” goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said. “You know how to prepare going in here and play this team. It’s a really good challenge for us. They’re a great team.”
Lundqvist has had terrific playoff numbers against Pittsburgh, especially at CONSOL Energy Center. In his last eight playoff appearances against the Pens, Lundqvist has posted a 7-1 record and has a 4-0 record in four road playoff appearances on the road against Pittsburgh over the span.
But both he and Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault acknowledged this is a different Pens team than the one they’ve seen in years past.
“The past is the past,” Lundqvist said. “We’re not thinking about the regular season. We’re not thinking last year or the year before that. It’s here and now. Both teams look a little different, have a different feel to them from last year and even during the regular season. We’re going in with a similar mindset, but the intensity is higher now. You start over.”
While it may not be home ice, it’s actually home for Rangers forward J.T. Miller. The 23-year-old forward grew up playing his youth travel hockey for the Pittsburgh Hornets, and recently bought a house outside the city where he lives during the offseason.
“It’s something you think about doing as a kid, playing in front of your hometown and especially in a playoff series,” he said. “But you kind of find a way to put that behind you. We’re more comfortable. We get to play these guys where we’re very familiar with what they have to offer. So I think we’re all going to be really excited and ready for puck drop.”
The players on both teams aren’t the only ones amped up and ready to go. This will be Sullivan’s first trip back to the playoffs as an NHL head coach since the 2003-04 season with Boston, and he acknowledged that it’s exciting for him personally to have this opportunity.
“To coach this team has been a privilege,” he said. “To coach in this league is not an easy challenge, and there are a lot of really good coaches out there that work extremely hard. And to have this opportunity, for me, is a thrill.”
He’s been behind the bench as an assistant for a number of series since, including three postseasons with the Rangers from 2009-13. And while a few players from those years remain – most notably Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal – Sullivan doesn’t necessarily feel that he has an advantage.
“Any time you have an opportunity to coach players you get to know them,” Sullivan said. “You know what their strengths are. You know where their weaknesses may be. And so you try to do your best to play to our strengths and see if we can identify some areas where we think we can exploit. So I guess that’s the benefit of when you have knowledge of players.
"But at the end of the day I think the guys that I coached when I was there they’ve really evolved. Their games are at another level. They’ve done a terrific job.”