Back to zero.
Regular season records no longer matter. Scoring titles no longer matter. Division finishes no longer matter. What matters is after the jump...
All you’re guaranteed at this point are four more games on the schedule. That’s it. Anything more is a gift, a reward for your team for getting to their game, playing a full sixty minutes, making the big saves, digging in the corners, winning the puck battles, scoring the key goals, making the fewest mistakes and maybe getting the majority of the lucky bounces.
All the clichés covered? Good.
You’ll lean forward on your couch or in your barstool every time a Penguins player rushes the puck up the ice. You’ll hold your breath or curl into the fetal position every time an opposing forward does the same.
The quickest two minutes of your life will be every Pens’ powerplay. The longest two minutes of your life will be every powerplay by the opposing team. If not that, then perhaps the last two minutes of a game in which the Pens hold a one-goal lead.
Concentrate at work or in class? Forget it.
Superstitious? If the Pens win, you’ll find yourself sitting in the same spot on the couch, wearing the same shirt, eating the same food the next game. (Fact: the Pens’ Cup in 2009 had just as much to do with Fleury, Malkin and Crosby as it did the chicken patties & mashed potatoes we had for dinner each game night starting with Game Three of the Cup Finals. I know this.)
We’re twelve hours from the opening puck drop of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
For the third time in five years, we get the Pens and Flyers.
If your heart isn’t already in your throat, it’s begun the steady climb to get there.
Your 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs Primer, dudes…
One of the best parts of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is the first round. For the next two weeks, there will be games on pretty much every night. Doubleheaders, too. Every playoff year, I know I’m going to see a ridiculously fast, physical pace to the Western Conference matchups, and every year, I’m always surprised to see it exceed expectations. We’re familiar with the Eastern Conference teams, probably not so much with the teams out west. Take the opportunity to watch these teams go at it. You won’t be disappointed.
If there’s one thing us Pens fans can take from that season-ending win over the Flyers, it’s the fact that it at least prevented the inevitable saturation of “Pens just can’t beat the Flyers at Consol” comments that would’ve been passed off the last three days as analysis.
Watching the NHL Network’s Eastern Conference preview. Kelly Chase is Larry the Cable Guy. (Chase does a solid job on NHL Tonight, by the way. He’s one of the better players-turned-analysts and despite being a former enforcer, he doesn’t spend all of his time bloviating about fighting and toughness. Take notes, NBC Sports Network.)
While we’re at it, it’s nice to see Ilya Bryzgalov morphing into the NHL’s version of Brick Tamland.
Evgeni Malkin played in 75 games this year. He was kept off the scoresheet just 15 times. Unreal season by Malkin and if he keeps this pace up in the playoffs, man…
Public Service Announcement: If you happen to be in the Weirton, WV area and get hungry, stop by DeeJays. They're the restaurant that Peter Laviolette inadvertently made famous when he attributed the Flyers’ early success at Consol to post-game meals of barbecue ribs provided by DeeJays. The owner, Dewey Guida, is a lifelong Pens fan who became friends with Laviolette when he coached in Wheeling several years ago. After Laviolette revealed the connection and cast his old friend in a bit of an uncomfortable spot, Guida announced he was cutting business with the Flyers (very likely passing up a pretty good chunk of money in the process). Despite this, it was brought to our attention that he still caught some grief about it.
In a world chock full of bland chain restaurants, It never hurts to support family businesses like this. If you get a chance, stop by and help out a fellow Pens fan.
OK, we’ll take one more thing away from that regular season finale. Amazing to see how the Pens tend to find a little bit more success against the Flyers when they refuse to indulge in the post-whistle crap that the Flyers like the start. Granted, Philly wasn’t running around as much as they were in the Laviolette Meltdown game, but it was still there. If the Pens maintain focus like that, they are a scary team to try to contain.
And that kind of crap is going to be there at some point from the Flyers. It's in the DNA of that organization, and the minute they feel like their backs are against the wall, it'll start. They’ll take shots at Malkin after every whistle. If he plays, Zac Rinaldo will be running around taking his usual cheap shots. Hartnell will knock their own net off the moorings anytime a Pens forward crashes for a rebound. Someone will run Fleury. Probably Hartnell.
Will the Pens ALWAYS skate away from it? No chance, and nor should they. As always, the key to beating Philly is to not get too caught up in it. Star players will often elevate their games when agitated. Crosby’s made a career of doing this to the Flyers. Lemieux had some of his best moments when he became enraged, harnessed it and focused on publicly humiliating every player in an opposing jersey. And now Malkin has begun to do it as well. This could be a very short series for the Flyers if this happens and the Pens maintain focus.
Best way for the Pens to keep the Flyers at bay is to play a clean-but-punishing physical game. A few years ago, Chris Kunitz helped set the tempo for the Pens-Flyers series by blasting Kimmo Timmonen with a crushing hit on a forecheck within the first couple of minutes of Game One.
Last year, Orpik did much the same at the other end of the ice, giving Steven Stamkos a rough introduction to NHL playoff hockey with a gigantic hit in the corner. Stamkos was invisible most of that game and really didn’t become a factor in the series until the last few games. Don’t be surprised if the Pens take the same approach with some of the younger Flyers players like Couturier, Schenn and even Giroux.
Want a candidate the Pens can target for some dumbass, momentum-killing penalties? Look no further than Zac Rinaldo, who could prove to be this year’s version of Steve Downie, circa 2008 playoffs. It’ll be interesting to see how much ice time Rinaldo gets.
The Red Wings’ puck possession system was able to pull Ilya Bryzgalov out of his comfort zone in previous playoff matchups when he was with the Coyotes. Bylsma's system thrives on puck possession and he loves seeing this team get their shots on net. Not saying. Just saying.
The 1995-96 Red Wings won the Presidents’ Trophy with 131 points, 24 points ahead of the next-best team in the standings. They opened the playoffs against Winnipeg, a team that finished 53 points behind them in the standings. They needed six games to beat Winnipeg. They needed seven games to eliminate the St. Louis Blues in the second round. They then lost to Colorado in six games in the Western Conference Finals.
The point? The playoffs are ridiculously tough. There are no easy games, and no one is going to go 16-0 (doesn’t mean I don’t want the Pens to try). History suggests the Pens are going to lose a game here and there. It’s not the end of the world if it happens. You get to lose three times in each series before you can’t lose again.
If they drop a game or two here or there, be upset. Get frustrated. But keep in mind that it’s one loss and unless they’ve already lost three prior games that series, nothing is over. Think back to where that Pens team was after Game Two of the ’09 Cup Finals, having to win four of five to win the Cup. If that doesn't help, think back to how you felt when the clock hit zero after Game Five, when all margin from error had vanished. Adversity was never as great as it was there. We know how it ended. Have faith.
I’ll echo the thoughts of Staff in the playoff preview post last night. I joke around on Twitter during games about guys like Kennedy and Martin, but at the end of the day, they’re Penguins and I want them to do well. When they do well, the team tends to do well. So I’ll leave this here. I would love nothing more than to see guys like Tyler Kennedy and Paul Martin score a game-winning goal or five during this playoff run.
One of the best parts of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is the emergence of the unsung hero. Unsung hero city for this year? Arron Asham. In his last 30 playoffs games, dude has 7 goals. Not bad for a lower-line grinder. Watch him.
There is nothing in sports better than the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Two months from now, one of the sixteen teams still playing will lift the Cup and carry it around a sheet of ice and this season will draw to a close.
Between now and then, every game will be a 150-minute (or more, overtime pending) assault on your senses and your emotions.
Eternally thankful to Benstonium for producing this.
If you don't want to run through a wall right now, not sure what else to tell you.