Joe DiPenta’s Blog: Preparing for the stretch drive and playoffs

While the NHL took a two-week break for the Winter Olympics, that certainly was not the case for the American League.

In fact, during the “Olympic Break” we had our toughest and most important stretch of the season, an eight-games-in-10-nights run that we had been preparing for all season.

We knew heading into these games that if we could string some wins together there was a good chance we could come out of it on top of our division, but if we let the run get the best of us, we could fall behind in a very tight race.

We went 5-2-1 over that stretch with the final victory coming two Sundays ago, which unfortunately was played during the Canada-USA gold medal final. The win put us atop the Atlantic Division for the first time this season. We’re really proud of that, since we found ourselves in last place at the beginning of the year.

Our coach, Kevin Dineen, did a great job preparing us for these eight games. He had been talking about it since November, so it’s been in the back of our heads all season, which is a good thing, because when the stretch finally got here we knew exactly what we were getting ourselves into. It was a great 10 days and I think it really brought our team closer together and made us stronger.

Heading down the final stretch towards the playoffs, it’s important we keep up our consistent play and continue doing the things that have made us so successful over the past 50 games or so. We play in one of the tightest divisions in the league and this is probably the closest divisional race I’ve ever been a part of. There are four really good teams – Worcester, Manchester, Lowell and Portland – and any one can beat another on any given night.  

READ ALSO:  KHL, hockey world remember tragic Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash

The race is going to get even more exciting as the top teams meet more often in the final month of the season. It’s going to go by fast and we just have to enjoy the process.  

There are also a lot of things we can’t control. You worry about injuries down the stretch and hopefully we can all stay healthy. All we can do is worry about the things we can control, like working hard and preparing for games.  

Heading towards the playoffs, I look forward to providing some leadership to our guys as well. I’ve played a lot of playoff games, both at the AHL and NHL levels, so I want to set a good example for the young guys. There are guys who haven’t played a playoff game before at the pro level, so if I get a chance I want to help them out where I can.

While it’s fun to be in a tight division race, our goal is to win in the playoffs. We’d like to capture home-ice advantage, which is always important. If you don’t do well in the playoffs, it doesn’t really matter how you did in the regular season.  

The playoffs are not a sprint to the finish, they’re a marathon.  We need to use these last games to prepare ourselves for the post-season, because that’s what matters most. Our goal is to capture the Calder Cup and I think we have the right group of guys to do it.

Defenseman Joe DiPenta returns to the North America after spending 2008-09 with the Frolunda Indians of the Swedish Elite League. The 30-year-old, who won a Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2006-07, will blog throughout the season about his experiences on the Buffalo Sabres/Portland Pirates blueline. Read his other blogs HERE.