The Pittsburgh Penguins closed out each of their four playoff series on the road last spring, including a thrilling Game 7 win to clinch the franchise’s third Stanley Cup.
Their first home game since should still provide ample opportunity to celebrate.
The Penguins will raise their championship banner Friday night before the final opener at Mellon Arena, where the New York Rangers will hope to spoil the party at the NHL’s oldest venue.
Pittsburgh had chances to wrap up each of its first two postseason series at home last season, but couldn’t defeat Philadelphia in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals or Washington in Game 6 of the semifinals.
The Penguins closed out both of those series on the road before sweeping Carolina in the conference finals, setting up a Stanley Cup rematch with Detroit, which beat Pittsburgh in six games for the title a year earlier.
The Red Wings appeared to be headed for a repeat after winning the first two games at home, but the Penguins didn’t fade this time. Pittsburgh won four of the series’ final five games, with its 2-1 clinching victory making it the first road team to Game 7 of the Cup finals since 1971.
Now, the Penguins will raise their first championship banner since the 1992-93 team won the second of back-to-back Stanley Cups.
“The celebration and raising of that banner, that doesn’t happen very often in your career and for teams,” head coach Dan Bylsma, who went 18-3-4 after taking over in midseason, told the Penguins’ official Web site. “It’s special in that regard. There will be an added energy and excitement because of that.”
The Penguins also became the first team since Edmonton in 1983-84 to lose in the Stanley Cup finals one season and win them the next, but eight months from now they’d like to equal the mid-80s Oilers in another category - being the first team since Edmonton in 1983-85 to play in the finals in three consecutive seasons.
“We’ve set the bar pretty high,” said captain Sidney Crosby(notes), whose 31 postseason points were second behind teammate and Conn Smythe Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin’s(notes) 36. “You have to be ready every night because you’re going to see everyone’s best.”
Crosby suffered a groin injury Sept. 24 in a preseason game at Columbus, initially leaving his status for the opener in doubt. But he returned to practice on Tuesday, and expects to play.
Almost all of the championship core returns, headlined by Crosby, Malkin, defenseman Sergei Gonchar(notes) and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury(notes). One key player who won’t be on the ice is forward Max Talbot(notes), who likely won’t return until January after offseason shoulder surgery.
Talbot scored both goals in Pittsburgh’s Cup-clinching win.
The Penguins’ biggest question mark comes at the blueline, where Rob Scuderi(notes) and Hal Gill(notes) left via free agency. Rugged veterans Jay McKee(notes) and Martin Skoula(notes) will give Pittsburgh’s defense some added bulk, while the more offensive-oriented Gonchar, Kris Letang(notes) and Alex Goligoski(notes) should help a power-play unit that was 20th (17.2 percent) a year ago.
New York averaged 2.44 goals - 28th in the NHL - last season, but revamped its offense in the offseason. Getting Marian Gaborik(notes), who left Minnesota to sign a five-year, $37.5 million deal, gave the Rangers arguably the biggest offensive name available in free agency.
The Rangers’ scoring issues caught up to them in their lone playoff series last spring. After jumping out to a 3-1 lead on heavily favored Washington, New York totaled four goals in losing the series’ final three games.
“Very disappointing,” said goalie Henrik Lundqvist(notes), who posted his fourth straight 30-win season. “… You try to learn from everything, but that one was a tougher experience. Hopefully it will help us move forward and help me to try to learn from it.”
Markus Naslund(notes) led the team with 24 goals last season, but he’s gone, as are co-scoring leaders Scott Gomez(notes) and Nikolai Zherdev(notes). Naslund retired, Gomez and his hefty contract were dealt to Montreal, and the mercurial Zherdev was let go after being awarded $3.9 million in arbitration.
All which puts the pressure squarely on the oft-injured Gaborik, who has scored 30 goals five times in his eight-year career but missed 65 games last season after having hip surgery.
“Expectations and pressures were there in Minnesota, but here it’s going to be a little more,” Gaborik said. “It’s a new organization, a new place to play for me. I am looking forward to everything. It’s a team game. You can’t just go out there and do it all by yourself. It’s just not happening.”
Like the Penguins, New York will also be starting its first full season under its coach. John Tortorella took over for the final 21 regular-season games a year ago, but has now had the whole summer to infuse his up-tempo style.
The Rangers will also have some new faces on the back end alongside veterans Wade Redden(notes) and Michal Rozsival(notes). Matt Gilroy(notes), the Hobey Baker winner last season for NCAA champion Boston University, and 2008 first-round pick Michael Del Zotto(notes) will be asked to play major roles in front of Lundqvist.
The Penguins are 13-0-2 in their last 15 games against the Rangers at Mellon Arena, the 38-year-old building that will be torn down after the season as Pittsburgh moves across the street to the new Consol Energy Center.
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