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Pens in way different place this year

| Sunday, April 6, 2008

Baptism by ire.

That was the Penguins' lot last April, when an angry mob of Ottawa Senators all but cremated them in the first period of the first Penguins playoff game since 2001.

Listen hard enough, and you can still hear bodies rattling off the boards like black, white and gold-colored bowling pins.

One wonders, what was general manager Ray Shero thinking that night at Scotiabank Place, watching his team get outshot, 16-4, outscored, 2-0, and out-hit 3,000 to nothing in those first 20 minutes?

"I was thinking, 'Shoot, the game started, man, come on!' " Shero recalled, laughing. "No, I think you had an experienced team at the top of their game, and they jumped all over us."

The Penguins have learned to laugh about it, even if that first period set the tone for a five-game Ottawa romp. Thirteen Penguins players made their playoff debuts that night.

"We laugh now," Sidney Crosby said. "At the time, it was pretty scary. We were kind of testing the water, and we found out how much of a higher level the playoffs are at.

"I think we'll definitely learn from that."

Indeed, the Penguins believe the Ottawa experience, combined with the adversity they overcame this season, plus major roster upgrades, have them better steeled for a playoff run.

"We'll see what happens, but I know everyone in here knows we can make a major run," defenseman Ryan Whitney said. "Last year, I don't know if guys really believed that."

The Penguins will not match last year's 105-point total, though they can finish with 104 if they win today at Philadelphia. They have scored less this season (3.05 goals per game compared to 3.38), have a worse penalty kill percentage, a slightly improved power-play percentage and eight fewer short-handed goals.

Numbers game
Penguins stats from last season, compared to 81 games this season:
Category Last year This year
Record 47-24-11(105 pts) 47-26-8(102 pts)
Goals per game 3.38 3.05
Goals against average 3.00 2.64
Power play percentage 20.3 20.8
Penalty kill percentage 82.1 80.7
Shorthanded goals 14 6
Shorthanded goals against 13 10

On the flip side, they have won a division title for the first time in a decade, and, unlike last year, will start the playoffs with two home games. They also have shaved their goals-against average from 3.00 to 2.64, good for 10th in the league and the second-best mark in the franchise's 40-year history (the 1997-98 team had a 2.29 GAA).

But numbers tell only part of the story. Crosby missed two months. Marian Hossa and Hal Gill just got here. So regular-season stats aren't necessarily a helpful guide.

Let's try something else.

Let's go from back to front, starting with goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

"No one's ever seen him play like this," Whitney said.

No one has seen Fleury among the league leaders in save percentage, that's for sure. But going into the weekend, he was tied with New Jersey's Martin Brodeur for fifth in the league at .920. He has allowed two or fewer goals in 11 of 12 appearances since coming back from an ankle injury.

"We'll see if he can control his rebounds in the playoffs," said TSN analyst Pierre McGuire, "but right now, he's much better than he was last year."

Fleury isn't relying so much on his athleticism. He is playing with his head and using his experience. Back-up Ty Conklin, with a save percentage of .923, gives the Penguins a solid option if Fleury struggles.

On defense, the Penguins are much better fortified. They better produce a little, too. Last year's group had one even-strength point - a second assist - in the Ottawa series.

Rookie Kris Letang and veteran Darryl Sydor have added puck-moving capability. Gill has injected experience, smarts and penalty kill prowess. Sergei Gonchar, Rob Scuderi and Brooks Orpik might be playing the best hockey of their careers. Whitney has 40 points.

"We have seven good NHL defensemen," Shero said.

Up front, the Penguins are much faster with the likes of Tyler Kennedy and Pascal Dupuis. They have more firepower, with Hossa and Petr Sykora essentially having replaced Mark Recchi and Gary Roberts on the top two lines. Ryan Malone has matured into a solid top-six forward.

Evgeni Malkin is in an entirely different place than he was at this point last season, when he was running on fumes in the latter stages of an exhausting rookie year. He had only 20 points in his final 25 regular-season games and was a non-factor against Ottawa.

This year, Malkin has 16 goals and 33 points in his past 25 games.

Malkin rising
The final 25 games of Evgeni Malkin's rookie season compared to his past 25 this season:
Category Last year This year
Goals 5 16
Assists 15 17
Points 20 33

The Senators were able to focus solely on Crosby, particularly when he and Malkin skated together. This year, opponents will have to worry about two high-octane units, plus a dangerous power play.

Against the Senators, the Penguins' power play was staid and ineffective, failing to score on its final 17 attempts.

The Penguins might only have six short-handed goals compared to last year's 14, but working Crosby, Hossa and Malkin into the penalty kill mix makes them a potent threat even when down a man.

Scoring depth was a major problem in last year's playoffs. The Penguins got virtually nothing from their role players. Shero likes the fact that guys such as Jeff Taffe and Jarkko Ruutu responded when forced into expanded duties this season.

Having overcome a spate of major injuries is one final reason the Penguins feel confident. They believe they can survive if a key player goes down.

"We had lot of unsung heroes this year, which is what we'll need in the playoffs," Shero said. "We can talk about Crosby, Malkin, Hossa, Gonchar - yeah, we need them to be good; we know that - but we need our secondary players to have a positive impact. That's how you're going to have success. Or not."

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