PITTSBURGH – Pardon the Pittsburgh Penguins for wondering what all the fuss is about.
They’re up 3-1 in their second-round series and can finish off the New York Rangers in Game 5 on Sunday at home. They’ve lost only once in more than a month, and they haven’t lost in Pittsburgh in more than two months.
But with an extra day off between games, all the Penguins have heard since losing 3-0 in Game 4 on Thursday is how the Rangers exploited their weaknesses. How the chink in their armour is exposed. How the Rangers are getting into their heads. How the series is turning.
Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik’s succinct analysis following the team’s hour-long practice Saturday: What series is everyone watching?
“I was kind of laughing about it, everybody is panicking – not in our room – but you hear all these people saying, ‘I don’t know now, I don’t know now,”‘ Orpik said. “If we had lost the first game (in New York), then won the second one coming back with the same lead in the series, I think everyone would have a different outlook on it.”
Coach Michel Therrien kept the theme going, saying a team that went through everything the Penguins have experienced – losing star Sidney Crosby to injury for two months and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury for three – isn’t going to collapse following one road loss.
“After losing our captain, not a lot of people were believing we were going to make the playoffs,” Therrien said. “That was adversity. After four games, leading 3-1, it’s a little adversity, but we feel comfortable playing at home in front of our fans. … This team has always bounced back after a loss.”
Therrien agreed the Penguins became too frustrated in Game 4, when they couldn’t score on 29 shots and repeatedly took bad penalties. Still, Therrien answered repeated questions about how Crosby will react to his worst game of the post-season with a veiled prediction.
“I have only one answer: You’ll see tomorrow (Sunday),” he said.
The Rangers, who practised at home before leaving for Pittsburgh on Saturday, are trying to keep the we-can-do-this theme going – despite the Penguins’ 12-game home-ice winning streak and 7-1 playoff record.
They’re talking confidently about stealing Game 5, which would shift more pressure onto the youthful Penguins – especially with no days off – for Game 6 in Madison Square Garden on Monday night.
“They won three games, but they didn’t win anything yet,” Jaromir Jagr said.
There’s one quirky twist the Rangers can point to if they’re looking for hope.
It’s been 33 years since an NHL team rallied from a 3-0 deficit – the Islanders did it against the Penguins in 1975. Before that, it had been – yes, that number again – 33 years since the only other time it was done, by the Maple Leafs against the Red Wings in 1942.
Jagr, who had two goals in Game 4, is already speculating what such a comeback might do for New York in the Eastern Conference finals.
“How much confidence would it give you if you do it, for the next round? That would be probably huge,” Jagr said. “Then you would go to the (next) series with a 1-0 lead already.”
There’s another potential comeback going on in the Western Conference, where the San Jose Sharks have won two straight against Dallas going into Game 6 on Sunday after losing the first three. To Crosby, what’s happening there means exactly zero in this series.
“Who’s to say that Dallas hasn’t played good hockey? They’ve played great hockey,” he said. “They’ve been one-goal games and that’s the way the playoffs are. That’s why it’s so important to worry about what you have to do and not worry about the circumstances or the situation.”
Or speculate about being on the losing end of a history-making comeback.
“We knew we weren’t going to win them all,” Fleury said. “They’re fighting for their lives, and we want to finish them off.”
The Penguins haven’t won a series at home since a Game 6 win against Washington in 2001, when Jagr and Mario Lemieux were their stars, not Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Jagr knows how tough it can be for a playoff opponent to win in Mellon Arena, and he said taking Game 5 is likely to be even tougher than winning a possible Game 7 there on Wednesday.
“It’s going to be the hardest one,” he said.
Rangers coach Tom Renney doesn’t disagree but said, “We’re certainly carrying ourselves as though we’re confident we can win the next one. … The guys understand that we want to play here (in New York) on Monday night.”
To avoid that return trip, the Penguins need to convert some of the numerous scoring chances they’re getting against goalie Henrik Lundqvist, keep their stars out of the penalty box and feed off what should be a loud and motivating crowd.
“I don’t think we’re concerned about the series (lead) or what they’re going to do, it’s what we have to do,” Crosby said. “That’s all we worry about. We take a lot of pride in playing at home.”
Notes: Penguins F Maxime Talbot (broken foot) didn’t practice Saturday but hasn’t been ruled out of Game 5. … Rangers F Sean Avery, whose spleen was lacerated in Game 3, remained hospitalized Saturday but was moved from intensive care. … Pittsburgh is 1-4 in its last five Game 5s.
AP Hockey Writer Ira Podell in New York contributed to this report.