The regular season has only 5 games remaining.
The (expected) playoff birth has been obtained an now it's really just a question of heading into the post season playing good "playoff hockey" and above all...staying healthy.
I know the team and the fans would like a division championship...at least...and maybe even first place in the conference.
But honestly to me, the most important thing is the mental preparation...getting ready for the long road ahead and realizing that it's time to take things up a notch or two.
I have watched the Penguins play progressively better as this season has gone on.
But there is one thing that bothers me and I'm not sure what to think of it.
The Pens played two of their worst games of the year in the last three weeks. A 5-2 loss to Florida on March 6th and a 4-1 loss to the Islanders on March 24th.
Part of me wants to write those loses off as unimportant games against non-playoff teams (the Panthers technically still have a shot).
But another part of me saw something in those games that makes me a little uneasy about the upcoming playoffs.
In both of those games, the Panthers and Islanders played a playoff type game...similar to what the Senators did last year. And in both of those games, the Penguins did not respond well...just like last year's playoffs.
Now, I realize that the Pens are a better team than they were last year. Malkin is better...Malone is better...Scuderi, Orpik, and Staal (even though he can't find the net often) are all better too. Plus, we have Sykora, Sydor, Dupuis, Gill and that guy name Hossa...all players that should help our scoring and depth this time around.
But the real question is: How will this group react when their opponent takes the game to them like the Senators did last year? While we can't be sure that their eventual opponent will be ABLE to play that type of game, I would be very surprised if the coaching staff of the team we play against doesn't at least try and play that type of game against the Pens.
The key to me is that this group needs to learn how to win ANY way. We have seen some of that during the season...winning 2-0 against the Devils the other night is a good example. But in the playoffs it's a different story.
In the playoffs you have to definitely "LIVE EVERY SHIFT". You have find ways to manufacture scoring chances. Sometimes it is a pretty end to end rush...others it's ugly brute force. Sometimes your cycle down low will work...other times, you just have to start hammering pucks at the net
But one thing is for certain, you can't expect what you did in the regular season to work just like it did in the regular season. There are countless examples from past playoffs that tell you that's just not the way it is. You need to be ready to adapt to the game that is being played that night. And if you don't have your best stuff, you still find a way to get a win.
I am looking forward to what lies ahead.
I am sure the Penguins are too.
But this playoff run will be different than last year.
No one will be happy with ONE AND DONE.
No one expects it to be ONLY a learning experience.
It's almost gutcheck time...almost time to see how much these guys really have grown since last year.