Following practice on Friday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, the Pens traveled across the state to Philadelphia – where they will play the Flyers on Saturday afternoon in a game that has huge playoff implications.
Both teams enter the matchup playing tremendous hockey. The Pens have won four straight, their longest winning streak under head coach Mike Sullivan. The Flyers are on an 8-1-1 tear that has lifted them to within four points of the Penguins in the standings, and they may be getting star forward Jakub Voracek back in the lineup for the game.
And of course, the teams are hated rivals. So yeah, it doesn’t get any better than this.
“It’s really exciting. This is the best time of year to play as a player,” Sullivan said. “It’s a high-stakes environment. Every game is so important. The race is tight. For me in my experience of being around the game, this is the most exciting time to play as a player and be a part of the whole process. Obviously this weekend is a big weekend for us.”
The Pens certainly won’t have any problem getting up for this game – but if they did, they could look to the fans at Wells Fargo Center for assistance.
“It’s always nice when you go in those buildings and it’s a tough environment, tough atmosphere,” captain Sidney Crosby said before adding with a grin, “It’s all about finding a way to win, but if you ever need any extra motivation, it’s there.”
These matchups are always emotional and intense, but Sullivan is confident his team can handle the swings. They did in the first game against these guys, when Pittsburgh came back from an early 2-0 deficit to win 4-3 back on Jan. 21 at CONSOL Energy Center. And they did it again at home on Thursday, again rallying from an early 2-0 deficit to defeat Carolina 4-2.
“We’ve talked about that since I’ve been here just as far as making sure we control our emotions regardless of what happens in the game. Last night was a perfect example,” Sullivan said. “It didn’t go the way we wanted it to go early on, but we grabbed ahold of ourselves and played the right way and were able to climb back in the game and get the result. It’s an important aspect of being a good team, is making sure that we control those ebbs and flows in the game.
“When we lose momentum, we’ve got to find a way to get it back. If things don’t go our way, we can’t go on our own agenda and lose the focus. We have to make sure that we trust each other and we trust the team concept and we stick together and we try to take ahold of the game that way. I think our guys have done a really good job throughout the course of this season at getting better at that.”
No matter what happens, all that matters is the end result.
“It should be a good game. We’re right there with each other and both teams are looking to get two points, and hopefully we get them,” Carl Hagelin said.--Michelle Crechiolo
In that first meeting, all three of Philly’s goals were scored on the power play. So as you can imagine, the Pens are aware that area of the game is something they need to improve.
“I think we’ve got to look at tape from that game,” Hagelin said. “I remember we didn’t do a good job. We gave up three goals. They have some really good power-play guys. They have the good young D-man there and (Claude) Giroux.”
The young blueliner that Hagelin is referring to is 22-year-old Shayne Gostisbehere, who’s opened a lot of eyes and elevated himself into Calder Trophy discussion with his play since being recalled from the American Hockey League in mid-November.
Gostisbehere has established himself as a power-play specialist, quarterbacking Philly’s attack from the point. In that game against the Pens, Gostisbehere earned two assists on the man-advantage. Overall, the rookie has 16 goals on the season and seven of them have come on the power play.
The Flyers’ power play has always been a threat with players like Giroux, Voracek and Wayne Simmonds being incredibly effective from their respective positions, but Gostisbehere has helped to make them even better.
“They’re good at finding each other, and they’re good at getting shots through,” Hagelin explained. “They have a good net presence. We have to make sure we’re aggressive and don’t let them set up, but I think it comes down to not taking too many penalties.”
The Pens are aware they have to do everything they can to keep their composure, which isn’t always easy against this team.
“I think it’s a fine line,” Crosby said. “You’ve got to be intense, and in a game like that the intensity is higher. The emotion is higher. You’ve got to raise your level as well, but at the same time just be disciplined and focus on playing the game. And understand that some games are more physical than others and things happen out there, but you’ve got to focus on playing the game and getting two points.”
The Pens know that the best thing they can do is stay out of the box in the first place, but when they do find themselves on the penalty kill, they know the adjustments they must make to shut the Flyers down.
“When our penalty kill does get on the ice, we have to do a good job in making sure we pressure pucks when we have an opportunity and force them to have to make plays under pressure,” Sullivan said.--Ashley Vesci
All expected players were on the ice for the team’s session, including forward Beau Bennett and defenseman Ben Lovejoy.
Sullivan said that Bennett, who has missed the last 23 games with an upper-body injury, will not be available for the Pens’ weekend set against Philadelphia on Saturday and Washington on Sunday.
“At some point, Ben may be available,” said Sullivan of the defenseman, who has missed the last 13 games with an upper-body injury. “We’ll have to make that decision accordingly.” --Michelle Crechiolo