Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury watches the play during hockey practice in Pittsburgh on Thursday. The Penguins face the Detroit Red Wings tonight in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals.AP photo
PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins’ formula in the Stanley Cup playoffs has been strikingly simple: Open at home, get two quick victories, then never give the opponent any opening to get back into a series that ends very quickly.
It worked against Ottawa, a four-game sweep. It worked against the Rangers, a five-game series, and worked against the Flyers, another five-game series.
Only it can’t work against the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup finals, which begin tonight at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena. By winning the NHL’s regular season title, the Red Wings own home-ice advantage. Given Pittsburgh’s 8-0 home-ice record in the playoffs, it could be a significant edge because the Penguins can play no more than three home games.
The Penguins haven’t started a playoff series on the road since a year ago, when they lost 6-3 in Game 1 of the opening round in Ottawa and never recovered, losing in five games.
For the Penguins, it was a meaningful lesson learned.
“We learned we can’t watch,” team captain Sidney Crosby said Thursday. “It’s almost like we waited the first 10 minutes just to feel it out and see how it was going to be, instead of having more of an instinct to attack or move our feet. The biggest thing we’ll talk about is moving our feet early and letting everything catch up to us. When we’re moving, reacting, the game comes a lot easier.”
The Penguins obviously learned from that mistake, when they fell behind Ottawa 2-0 early in Game 1 and never seemed to get in sync the rest of the series. This spring, they won their initial road game in each of the first three rounds, giving them a 3-0 lead in every series.
That ability to play well on the road — the Penguins are 4-2 away from Mellon Arena — could prove important given the Red Wings’ 8-1 record at home.
“Yes, it’s going to be a challenge,” Max Talbot said. “But it’s still hockey, we played and won on the road against Philadelphia, the Rangers in the Garden, tough buildings. The objective is to try to get both (road games), but you want to get away with at least one and we’re going to focus on that.”
In a Stanley Cup finals that offers as many stars as any in the last 20 years — Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Marian Hossa — the Penguins’ objective is to keep playing with the same high-energy offense and low-risk defense they’ve employed so far.
Their 1.86 goals-against average is the lowest in the playoffs, with Detroit second at 1.94.
“We want to keep it as normal as possible, the same way we’ve approached every series, and that’s to make sure we worry about ourselves,” Crosby said.
That means no worrying about the difficulties of steering the puck past Lidstrom at the blue line, of dealing with the Red Wings’ adept cast of role players, or handling a hostile crowd in a building where flying octopi can hold up a game and give a motivational boost to the home team.
Only six Penguins players have been in the finals, and only three — defenseman Sergei Gonchar and forwards Petr Sykora and Georges Laraque — seem certain of playing in Game 1. Defenseman Darryl Sydor and goalie Ty Conklin haven’t played in the playoffs, and forward Gary Roberts, who turned 42 on Friday, has been fighting pneumonia.
The Red Wings have rolled up 100-point season after 100-point season since last winning the Cup in 2002, only to get bounced from the playoffs during a string of upsets. They haven’t allowed that to happen this spring and, with a veteran cast so close to winning another Cup, they present far more challenges than any Eastern Conference team has offered Pittsburgh.
STANLEY CUP FINALS
•Pittsburgh vs. Detroit, Joe Louis Arena, Detroit
•8 p.m. today. TV coverage on VERSUS