Sports / Hockey

Penguins pack playoff punch

By Associated Press In Pittsburgh (China Daily) Updated: 2016-04-13 08:03

Crosby and crew primed for fight against Rangers

 Penguins pack playoff punch
Pittsburgh Penguins' Nick Bonino (center) is hugged by teammates Derrick Pouliot and Carl Hagelin after scoring against the Philadelphia Flyers in Philadelphia last week. The Penguins open the Stanley Cup playoffs against the New York Rangers on Wednesday.Derik Hamilton / Usa Today Sports

Matt Cullen can't quite find the right words to describe it - maybe because the seemingly ageless Pittsburgh Penguins center has never experienced a season quite like this in a career that spans eight cities and nearly two decades.

Lifeless and listless in December, the Penguins enter the Stanley Cup playoffs arguably the hottest team in the NHL, fueled by captain Sidney Crosby's return to doing Sidney Crosby-like things. And by fresh legs from youngsters who seem to thrive off the pressure.

And by a coach in Mike Sullivan whose arrival resonated in a dysfunctional dressing room.

Maybe that's where Cullen should start, with the man who took over for Mike Johnston on Dec 12 and put his star-laden but underachieving group on notice.

"There was a renewed sense of competition for jobs ... and that can take your game up to another level," Cullen said. "Guys were motivated to re-establish themselves."

Practices became energy-sapping endurance tests. Video work became teachable moments where mistakes were broken down and bluntly pointed out, regardless of player status.

"It doesn't matter who it is, he is critiquing our play and expecting us to be consistent every night," defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. "It took a while. It's not an overnight process. We had a lot of work to do."

Yet the Penguins have done it, rocketing from the fringe of the playoff race on New Year's Day to second in the Metropolitan Division behind a 14-2 sprint to the finish.

That sprint has improbably given them home-ice advantage in their first-round series against the New York Rangers, a best-of-seven showdown that opens on Wednesday.

Even more remarkable than what Pittsburgh has done while averaging four goals a game over the past month is who the Penguins have done it without.

High-scoirng Evgeni Malkin skated before his teammates hit the ice on Monday but remains out indefinitely with an upper-body injury sustained on March 11.

Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, whose steady hands kept the season from an all-out implosion last fall, is dealing with a two-week-old concussion, but he practiced on Monday and could return for Game 1.

A similar spate of injuries last spring sent Pittsburgh into a late tailspin. The Penguins needed to beat Buffalo on the final day of the season to make the playoffs. They stuck around only long enough for the Rangers to escort them out after five taut but ultimately one-sided games.

Not this time. If anything, missing two key components of the team's core seemed to galvanize the rest of the roster - in part because of the habits ingrained by Sullivan, who stresses smart, aggressive decisions, and a series of moves by general manager Jim Rutherford that provided the Penguins with a needed jolt.

Rutherford flipped plodding defenseman Rob Scuderi for smooth-skating Trevor Daley. Forwards Tom Kuhnhackl, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Oskar Sundqvist - all 24 or younger, all graduates of Sullivan's time with Pittsburgh's AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre - played with an energy that negated their inexperience.

Rookie goaltender Matt Murray took over for Fleury and looked just as comfortable in the NHL as he did while setting the AHL record for shutouts last year.

"Everybody has worked hard, no matter their role or what position they're in," Crosby said.

After an extended funk under Johnston, Crosby has returned with a flourish. Mired outside the top-100 in scoring in December, he finished third overall with 85 points (36 goals and 49 assists) while offering nightly reminders that he's not quite ready to fully cede his longtime spot as the world's best player.

While Crosby's ability to create was never in question, his determination to get to the dirty areas in front of the net seemed to ease.

Not so under Sullivan, who moved Crosby closer to the goal on the powerplay while also challenging him to set the tone by attacking with the kind of intelligent aggression the coach calls "playing our game."

As Pittsburgh's opponents are about to discover, it's a mantra Sullivan sneaks into nearly every answer when he's asked about what led to such a spectacular turnaround.

Road to the Cup

FIRST ROUND (Best-of-7; x-if necessary). All times EDT

Eastern Conference:

Panthers vs Islanders

Thursday, April 14: NY Islanders at Florida, 8 p.m.

Friday, April 15: NY Islanders at Florida, 7:30 p.m.

Sunday, April 17: Florida at NY Islanders, 8 p.m.

Wednesday, April 20: Florida at NY Islanders, 8 p.m.

x-Friday, April 22; Sunday, April 24; Tuesday, April 26.

Lightning vs Red Wings

Wednesday, April 13: Detroit at Tampa Bay, 7 p.m.

Friday, April 15: Detroit at Tampa Bay, 7 p.m.

Sunday, April 17: Tampa Bay at Detroit, 7 p.m.

Tuesday, April 19: Tampa Bay at Detroit, 7 p.m.

x-Thursday, April 21; Sunday, April 24; Tuesday, April 26.

Capitals vs Flyers

Thursday, April 14: Philadelphia at Washington, 7 p.m.

Saturday, April 16: Philadelphia at Washington, 7 p.m.

Monday, April 18: Washington at Philadelphia, 7 p.m.

Wednesday, April 20: Washington at Philadelphia, 7 p.m.

x-Friday, April 22; Sunday, April 24; Wednesday, April 27.

Penguins vs Rangers

Wednesday, April 13: N.Y. Rangers at Pittsburgh, 8 p.m.

Saturday, April 16: N.Y. Rangers at Pittsburgh, 3 p.m.

Tuesday, April 19: Pittsburgh at N.Y. Rangers, 7 p.m.

Thursday, April 21: Pittsburgh at N.Y. Rangers, TBD

x-Saturday, April 23; Monday, April 25; Wednesday, April 27.

Western Conference:

Stars vs Wild

Thursday, April 14: Minnesota at Dallas, 9:30 p.m.

Saturday, April 16: Minnesota at Dallas, 8 p.m.

Monday, April 18: Dallas at Minnesota, 8:30 p.m.

Wednesday, April 20: Dallas at Minnesota, 9:30 p.m.

x-Friday, April 22; Sunday, April 24; Tuesday, April 26.

Blues vs Blackhawks

Wednesday, April 13: Chicago at St. Louis, 9:30 p.m.

Friday, April 15: Chicago at St. Louis, 8 p.m.

Sunday, April 17: St. Louis at Chicago, 3 p.m.

Tuesday, April 19: St. Louis at Chicago, 9:30 p.m.

x-Thursday, April 21; Saturday, April 23; Monday, April 25.

Anaheim vs Nashville

Friday, April 15: Nashville at Anaheim, 10:30 p.m.

Sunday, April 17: Nashville at Anaheim, 10:30 p.m.

Tuesday, April 19: Anaheim at Nashville, 9:30 p.m.

Thursday, April 21: Anaheim at Nashville, 8 p.m.

x-Saturday, April 23; Monday, April 25; Wednesday, April 27.

Los Angeles vs San Jose

Thursday, April 14: San Jose at Los Angeles, 10:30 p.m.

Saturday, April 16: San Jose at Los Angeles, 10:30 p.m.

Monday, April 18: Los Angeles at San Jose, 10:30 p.m.

Wednesday, April 20: Los Angeles at San Jose, 10:30 p.m.

x-Friday, April 22; Sunday, April 24; Tuesday, April 26: San Jose at Los Angeles, TBD


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