PITTSBURGH, Pa. – The statistics are gaudy.
And if the Pittsburgh Penguins can’t find a way to extend their season into the final days of spring, ultimately forgettable.
The same team that led the NHL in man games lost due to injury (more than 500) also earned 109 points, led the Metropolitan Division from mid-October on and received another peerless effort from star Sidney Crosby, who topped the league with 104 points and is a near lock for the second MVP award of his career.
The Penguins have been excellent, and yet they are well aware the only thing that matters is what happens when they host upstart Columbus on Wednesday night in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“It’s all about winning games and going on,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “We have that opportunity right now.”
One that comes only after six relentless months in which they stacked up win after win regardless of who was in the lineup.
Defenceman Kris Letang missed more than half the season with a series of injuries, including more than two months following a stroke.
Evgeni Malkin sat out a quarter of the season with bumps and bruises. Top line winger Pascal Dupuis was knocked out in December with a torn ACL that left Bylsma searching for a new security blanket for Crosby.
The list goes on and on. Brooks Orpik, James Neal and Paul Martin also missed significant time. Backup goaltender Tomas Vokoun didn’t play after being diagnosed with blood clots during training camp.
Yet Pittsburgh chugged along, showcasing the organization’s depth and Bylsma’s ability to push the right buttons in the dressing room. As impressive as it was, Bylsma understands it’s meaningless if the journey doesn’t end with Crosby hoisting the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup in mid-June.
“You can talk about the number of wins, the number of points, ranks in Penguin history but really, that (just) gives us our spot in the playoffs,” Bylsma said.
One that comes with enormous pressure. The Penguins were swept out of the Eastern Conference finals last spring by Boston.
Rather than make significant changes after a fourth straight season ended short of the Cup finals, Pittsburgh doubled down. Bylsma received a contract extension while the team signed Malkin and Letang to long-term deals.
The decision to keep the core together resulted in another sublime regular season, one in which Bylsma insists the Penguins have learned they can’t just rely on their world class scorers to get by.
“We’ve found ways to win and I think we improved on our mentality in playing defence and how we play defence,” he said. “I think we’ve done a better job of being able to shut teams down and limit opportunities. Now you have to do that in the playoffs.”
That might not be much of a problem, at least in the first round. Pittsburgh swept all five meetings with the Blue Jackets during the regular season and outscored Columbus 16-8.
Still, the Penguins remain wary even while facing a franchise that has yet to win a post-season game since it entered the league in 2000.
“We have lots of confidence with how we played against this team, but at the same time they have played great the last couple of months,” Penguins forward Jussi Jokinen said. “It’s going to be a really tight series.”
A prospect that would only fuel the anxiety in Pittsburgh, which has lost to a lower-seeded team in each of the past four years. Still, the Penguins appear to be as healthy as they’ve been since the fall.
Martin returned from a hand injury two weeks ago and immediately provided the goal that clinched the division title. Letang produced an emotional comeback last Wednesday against Detroit, 10 weeks removed from the stunning stroke diagnosis that seemed to put his season if not his career in jeopardy.
Though Bylsma remains quiet on Malkin’s status, the timetable suggested when the former MVP hurt his foot against St. Louis on March 23 means he should be ready at some point during the opening series. If No. 71 is back in the lineup, the Penguins have one more weapon—and one fewer excuse—as the journey to the Cup begins.
“I like the way we’re getting healthy and I like the way we’re playing,” Neal said. “This year I think is a little different than others. We’re playing the right hockey at the right time and that’s big for us.”