MONTREAL – Watch out for the Pittsburgh Penguins heading into the National Hockey League playoffs.
A 3-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night gave them an 18-3-4 record since Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien as head coach on Feb. 15. That makes Sidney Crosby and his teammates one of the hottest clubs as post-season play gets set to begin this week.
The team that looked like a long shot even to make the playoffs two months ago ended up with 99 points, only three short of the 102 they earned last season when they were second in the Eastern Conference to Montreal.
They will face Pennsylvania rival the Philadelphia Flyers in the opening round, the team they beat in five games in the Conference final last spring before losing in six games to the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup final.
“Considering where we were, we’re proud that we made it to this point,” said defenceman Rob Scuderi. “We got our first goal, which was to make the playoffs.
“Now that we know we’re in, we’re focused on getting a little more. We want another long playoff run into June and we’re just getting focused on that.”
It was more than a coaching change that turned the Penguins in the right direction.
The day before Therrien got the axe, Sergei Gonchar, their top defenceman and quarterback of the power play, returned from an injury that had kept him out from the beginning of the season.
And soon after Bylsma was promoted from AHL Wilkes-Barre, general manager Ray Shero swung deals to land the gritty linemates Crosby needed to get him the puck – veteran Bill Guerin from the New York Islanders and Chris Kunitz from the Anaheim Ducks.
Kunitz has seven goals and 11 assists in 20 games and Guerin has five goals and seven assists in 17 games since joining the Penguins, while Gonchar has 19 points in 25 games, including 13 on the power play, since his return.
“It’s all of those things,” said Scuderi. “To have the new coach come in and give us a bit of a kick in the rear end, and a few minor changes, and you see what happens.
“We also had Sarge (Gonchar) come back, who is a big part of our team, especially on the power play. Plus the addition of Kunitz and Guerin has been great. That, mixed with a new team attitude, has made a world of difference for us.”
It also gave them a second dangerous line beside the Evgeny Malkin-Peter Sykora duo, which lately has had digger Matt Cooke on left wing.
Crosby won’t point fingers at his many former linemates, although he has cruised along with 31 points in his final 21 games.
“There’s always talk about what you need when you’re losing,” Crosby said. “When your team has discipline and everyone plays well and you win, everything’s fine.
“We needed to elevate our game, but those guys (Guerin and Kunitz) would help any team and they helped us a lot. We clicked pretty quick. They battle pretty hard. Kunitz has played in a Stanley Cup final and won a Cup (with Anaheim), so those two guys fit in pretty easily.”
Malkin had a spectacular season with 113 points to lead the NHL, while Crosby had 103 – making them the most potent one-two punch in the sport, much as they had when Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr led the Penguins to a pair of Stanley Cups and a long run of winning seasons in the 1990s.
They play together on the power play and, with Gonchar now in the mix, special teams should not be a problem in the playoffs. Their penalty killing ranks in the top 10 in the league, and it won’t hurt that the P.K units led by Maxime Talbot and Pascal Dupuis scored twice during the same kill against Montreal to break open a 1-1 game.
Crosby said the team’s feeling of confidence is “pretty similar” to a year ago, even though there have been personnel changes, including the loss last summer of star winger Marian Hossa as a free agent to Detroit.
The change Bylsma brought was giving his gifted young scorers more of a free rein to go on attack.
“We’ve become a bit more of a skating team – we put a lot more pressure on the other team,” Crosby added. “That keeps the tempo up and makes it easier for other teams to make mistakes.
“As players with speed, you feed off those mistakes. That’s certainly helped.”
The Penguins are also healthy, with the only player absent being centre Mike Zigomanis, who has been out since early December with a shoulder injury. Defenceman Mark Eaton sat out the final game but is expected to be ready for the playoffs, while rearguard Philippe Boucher returned from a long injury layoff this week.
And Miroslav Satan, an off-season signing who was a disappointment with 17 goals in 65 games, was recalled from a stint in Wilkes-Barre this week. He missed 16 Penguins games, but may do better under Bylsma’s more aggressive style of play, although it appears the new coach considers him a depth player for the post-season.
“He’s played meaningful games in this league and if we’re to go far in the playoffs, we need meaningful guys we can add to the lineup,” Bylsma said. “And that’s what Miroslav Satan will be for us.”
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has been mostly solid despite a heavy workload in the second half of the season.
Bylsma likes how his team has developed since he took over and said a key to a strong finish is that it boosts confidence going into the playoffs.
“By my definition, confidence is that you have belief in the outcome of an event, and you get that through work, through past success and through a positive identity of yourself – and we have all three of those things right now,” he said.
Winning has certainly produced an upbeat feeling on a team that spent much of the first four months in a funk.
“We’ve played well heading into the playoffs, which is what every team wants to do,” said Scuderi. “We know we have to work hard and play well, but there’s an excitement around the team, considering where we were a couple of months ago.”
The Penguins lost the first three times they faced Philadelphia in the playoffs – in 1989, 1997 and 2000 – before beating them last year.