The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA


April 14, 2014

Pressure on Penguins to capture Cup

PITTSBURGH — 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.

Defenseman 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 defense and how we play defense,” 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 postseason 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.”

Text Only | Photo Reprints
  • Dodgers Pirates Polanco, Walker lift Pirates over Dodgers

    Gregory Polanco broke out of a slump with a solo home run and a tiebreaking two-run single, lifting the Pittsburgh Pirates to a 12-7 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday night.
    Polanco, hitting just .133 in his previous 11 games, smacked a bases-loaded single with two outs in the sixth to put Pittsburgh in front for good.

    July 22, 2014 2 Photos

  • ACC Kickoff Football ACC schools get optimism from stability

    Welcome to the new Atlantic Coast Conference.
    It’s where a founding member is out, a fast-rising program is in, Notre Dame is there, too – sort of – and nobody else is leaving.

    July 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • aaaba 0721 Martella’s sweeps past Delweld

    A six-run rally in the first helped guide Martella’s Pharmacy to an 8-1 win over Delweld in Game 3 of their best-of-5 AAABA League semifinal series at Point Stadium, sweeping the series in the process.
    That rally also continued season-long trends for the clubs, according to their respective managers.

    July 21, 2014 1 Photo

  • warshel_0721 Warshel selecting UPJ

    For Kelci Warshel, the call to attend Pitt-Johnstown was based on the availability of her desired major – nursing.
    Taking an opportunity to join the university’s women’s track and field program was a very nice add-on and one that the Richland High graduate is ready to jump into ...
    ... Or hurdle over.

    July 21, 2014 1 Photo

  • Pirates 0721 Rallying Dodgers snap Pirates’ win streak at 3 games

    Hyun-Jin Ryu pitched seven strong innings, Adrian Gonzalez reached base five times and the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 5-2 on Monday night.
    Ryu (11-5) joined Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw in making the Dodgers the first team in the majors with three 11-game winners.

    July 21, 2014 1 Photo

  • Pitt picked sixth in cluttered Coastal

    Florida State was an obvious choice as a favorite in one of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s divisions.
    In the other one, the pecking order was nowhere near that clear.

    July 21, 2014

  • Local Sports Briefs

    July 21, 2014

  • American Legion Region 7: Bedford gets past Clearfield

    Bedford’s Jake Stover had two hits with double and three RBIs in a 9-6 win against host Clearfield in the Pa. American Legion Region 7 Tournament.

    July 21, 2014

  • American Legion Region 7: Claysburg edges Beech Creek

    Claysburg’s Mike Mock went 2-for-2 with a two-run home run in the fourth inning to help his squad get by Beech Creek 7-6 during Sunday’s winners-bracket game in the Pa. American Legion Region 7 Tournament.

    July 21, 2014

  • Pirates 0720 Pirates rally to keep sweep

    Taking the extra base was the key for the Pittsburgh Pirates in completing a three-game sweep of the Colorado Rockies.
    Andrew McCutchen hit a tiebreaking single in the seventh inning, Neil Walker followed with a home run and the Pirates overcame a three-run deficit to beat the Rockies 5-3 Sunday.

    July 20, 2014 1 Photo