The Pittsburgh Penguins made it clear that they won’t be playing angry Friday night in their rematch against the Philadelphia Flyers. They won’t even be playing hangry.
Sure, they were wholly unsatisfied – to put it mildly – with their 3-0 loss in Philadelphia Jan. 21, the first half of a drawn-out home-and-home set against the Flyers.
That was the eve of a break that included All-Star weekend and a bye week for both clubs. When the Penguins came back for practice Thursday, they had regained the chip on their shoulder and put things into what seems to be a healthy perspective.
“I think the beauty of it is we played that game and we got into a break, so we can actually put it to the side, forget about everything and just try to focus on resting and what’s coming ahead of us,” defenseman Kris Letang said.
“It’s a good thing that a game like this happened right before an eight-day break. You forget about it. The fun part of the season is coming up.”
Fun. That’s what the Penguins think of the final eight-plus weeks of the season, a stretch that can be grueling and emotionally trying.
It’s the unofficial second half, although in reality the team has logged 50 games, with the final 32 (including 28 against Eastern Conference teams) and the stretch run set to determine their playoff status. And that — for a club that sits second in its division, the Metropolitan, and fourth in the overall NHL standings, and has plowed through an incredible series of injuries – is fun.
Which might explain the pep in their step Thursday when everyone returned from the break.
“I think we came back refreshed, re-energized,” winger Bryan Rust said. “I think it was the most excitement I’ve seen around the (locker) room in a while. Everybody was happy to see each other again.”
Being hung up on a rematch with Philadelphia was not part of their thought process. They were looking at a bigger picture.
“It was a big chunk of days to get away a little bit and rest and recharge and get ready for a big stretch of games the rest of the year,” center and captain Sidney Crosby said. “We want to build off of the way we played up to this point. We didn’t feel good about our last game in Philadelphia, but I think prior to that we played some good hockey.”
Pressed specifically about coming off the disastrous game against the Flyers and facing them again, Crosby didn’t break stride in terms of talking the talk.
“They played well,” he said of the Flyers. “They didn’t give up much. I don’t think we made a ton of mistakes. I feel like we just didn’t generate enough. It happens. You don’t want to make a habit of it.”
Coach Mike Sullivan, who was uncharacteristically critical in his postgame comments after the loss to the Flyers, was back to his measured, supportive ways when the team reconvened.
“Obviously, you want to try to respond the right way when you don’t have a game that we were all comfortable with – and I don’t think any of us were satisfied with the game that we played,” he said. “This is a mature group. They understand that. Hopefully, we can bring a much better effort (Friday) night.”
It’s not that the Penguins have forgotten the heated rivalry with their cross-state division foes going into the rematch at PPG Paints Arena — “I’m sure the building will be rocking. Both teams had a break at the same time. We’ll both be excited to get back after it,” defenseman Jack Johnson said.
It’s not even assured that the rivalry won’t simmer and maybe even boil once the game starts.
It’s just that the Penguins say they have their priorities straight.
“We’ve got a big stretch ahead of us,” Johnson said. “It’s an important stretch. We put ourselves in a good position, but there’s a lot of work to be done.”
While both teams could be susceptible to rust, at least physically, the Penguins don’t expect that to be a problem.
“I don’t think it’s physically a problem,” Johnson said. “You just want to get some of your puck touches and feel like everything on the ice is in sync. I think guys take care of themselves, get a few workouts in over break so they can maintain. That’s never an issue.”
Letang got some skating in as one of the team’s two All-Star representatives, but he did more than that, and he trusts that his teammates did the same.
“There’s guys that skated. I skated a couple days,” Letang said. “But I also trained at home to try and keep my legs going.”