PITTSBURGH — There is nothing routine or stale for the Pittsburgh Penguins as they begin their quest for their third straight Stanley Cup Wednesday night against the Philadelphia Flyers at PPG Paints Arena in a first-round playoff series opener.
“I still pinch myself almost every day that you get to be a part of something like this,” said Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray, who won each of the past two Stanley Cups while technically a rookie under NHL rules.
“It’s just so exciting. It’s like Christmas when you’re a kid almost. You know how much fun you had watching when you were a kid. I’ll bet you I’ll feel like that for years and years. It’s really cool that I get to be here. I’m just trying to cherish that.”
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They’re also trying hard to win it all again, while not overlooking the journey.
“Certainly, the expectation within our room is that we have the ability to compete,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “We know that it’s hard, and we know that we’ve got to go out and earn it each and every day, each and every game. That’s where our mindset is. I don’t think any of us are trying to reflect on where this team stands.”
The Penguins finished second in the Metropolitan Division, just two points ahead of the Flyers, but seem to enter their first-round series as a bigger favorite than that margin would indicate, more than likely based on Pittsburgh’s recent postseason success.
Philadelphia isn’t arguing that point, but the team isn’t accepting anything as a foregone conclusion, either.
“We didn’t expect very many people to pick us to come out of this series, and that’s OK,” Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said. “There’s a quiet belief in our dressing room. … We’re the underdog. We’re pegged that. We know that. We’re playing against a hell of a hockey team that has a lot of experience at the playoff level. We’ve got to go out and earn it, and that’s what we’ll do.”
There are a couple more tangible reasons for Pittsburgh to be favored.
The Penguins, who have home-ice advantage in the series, were 30-9-2 at PPG Paints Arena during the regular season. They also have the most potent power play in the NHL going into the postseason, with a 26.2 percent success rate.
And then there were the head-to-head meetings. Pittsburgh swept the four games, scoring five goals in each, with star centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin combining for 14 points.
“I know we didn’t get the points that we wanted in the games against them, but I think out of the four games, in three of them we played really well and kind of let a few games get away,” Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov told the Philadelphia Daily News. “It doesn’t matter now. It’s a clean sheet now in the playoffs and all our focus is on getting the first win.”
Both teams have players who excelled during the regular season. Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux finished second in the league scoring race with 102 points. Pittsburgh’s Malkin was third with 98 points, while teammates Phil Kessel (92) and Crosby (89) ranked eighth and 10th.
The last time these teams met in the playoffs, in 2012, also in the first round, Philadelphia not only upset Pittsburgh in six games but also got under the Penguins’ skins with a physical, agitating style that led to several Pittsburgh star players getting involved in fights and scrums.
The only Penguins remaining from that team are Crosby, Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang, but all three engaged in the uncharacteristic behavior in the 2012 series.
“We’re all over 30 years old now. We’re supposed to be mature,” Letang said. “I mean, it was. … whatever it was, it was in the moment. Emotional. We have a different team, different experience, different coaching staff. Everything is different, so we don’t even look at that.”
Couturier said this time the Flyers’ motivation is to win in a more direct way.
“I don’t think we’ve played our best game or a full 60 minutes against Pittsburgh yet,” he told the Daily News. “I like our chances if we play some good hockey and focus for 60 minutes, maybe even more.”