Penguins at best against West
By Rob Rossi
Published: Friday, Jan. 31, 2014, 11:12 p.m.
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Rob Scuderi spent the previous four seasons playing in a Western Conference known for black-and-bruise hockey that has produced five of the past seven Stanley Cup champions.
Such hockey should not favor a Penguins team built on skill and speed, but it hasn't played out that way.
The problem for Western teams starts with centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Scuderi said.
“There's not too many teams in the league that can put two MVP-caliber players against you every shift,” Scuderi said. “It's tough to match up against if you don't see it all the time.”
Scuderi, a stay-at-home defenseman, joined the Los Angeles Kings after the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009. The Penguins have not returned to the Final since and have won only three of seven playoff series.
That may be because they cannot get away from Eastern Conference clubs — built specifically to hang with them — in the postseason. If the Penguins could just get back to the Cup Final, they might fare well.
They are an East-best 11-3-1 against the West this season and were 33-13-8 in three previous full seasons under coach Dan Bylsma. (The club stayed in conference for all 48 games of the lockout-shortened season in 2013).
The Penguins can continue their Western winning ways against Phoenix on Saturday Night at Jobing.com Arena.
Style points do not win games. Contrasting styles do, though, winger Tanner Glass said.
“If we look at a team we're probably going to have to (beat) come playoff time, it's Boston,” Glass said. “A team that is a big, physical team probably presents more of a challenge.”
It is one to which the Penguins mostly have risen, as they did Thursday night with a 4-1 victory at Los Angeles. The Kings are the NHL's top defensive club and known to play a heavy game.
The Penguins scored first, then used two power-play goals to break a 1-1 tie in the first period.
They were up by three goals near the midpoint of the second period, and the Kings often appeared worn down from chasing after pucks.
“When you know a team is physical, forechecks hard and their defense is going to pound on you, that kind of sets a tone,” winger Chris Kunitz said of the Kings, whose grinding ways are another hallmark of other Western contenders such as Anaheim and St. Louis and — when necessary — reigning champion Chicago.
Kunitz said “maybe” the allure of testing themselves against Western opponents brings a sharper focus for the Penguins “to dictate” early and “play more responsibly.”
Crosby said what pleased him most about the win at Los Angeles — the Cup winner in 2012 and a West finalist last postseason — was the Penguins willingness to pay a price to win battles for prime scoring real estate and continue to challenge offensively while avoiding risky passes when up by multiple goals late.
Scuderi said he hopes a willingness by the perceived “pretty Penguins” to play grueling hockey catches opponents off guard the rest of this season, which includes 13 more games against the West.
“It's something we're going to have to find a little bit more of in our game if we want to be successful later on,” Scuderi said. “You can't be a perimeter team when the chips are down.”
Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.
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