Elimination games have a way of revealing the character of a team. Some players relish the opportunity of playing with their backs against the wall while others self-destruct under the intense pressure of the situation.
The Penguins have faced one elimination game in this playoff season. The Penguins and Washington Capitals played a Game 7 in Washington in an Eastern Conference semifinal series.
The Penguins came through with flying colors in that contest, winning, 6-2. That situation is different than what the Penguins face tomorrow night against the Detroit Red Wings, who put the Penguins on the brink of elimination with a 5-0 victory in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final Saturday night.
The Penguins blew an opportunity to win the series against Washington by losing Game 6 at home. They are now faced with having to win Game 6 at Mellon Arena and Game 7 in Detroit to win the series.
Complicating matters, they find themselves in the unique predicament of facing the prospects of having the Red Wings skate around with the Stanley Cup on Mellon Arena ice for a second consecutive season.
The Penguins gave a valiant effort to stave off elimination in Game 6 against Detroit last season, losing, 3-2, after the Red Wings scored the first two goals.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma was not around for last year's heartbreak, but he understands full well what it's like to lose a hard-fought series with the Stanley Cup on the line. He played for the Anaheim Ducks in 2003 when they lost the Stanley Cup final in seven games to the New Jersey Devils.
"I can remember vividly, too vividly, what it's like to have the clock ticking down," Bylsma said. "And then to have the pomp and circumstance afterward. I do know what it's like personally. But that's playoff hockey. You're faced with elimination games and you're faced with them on the road and at home sometimes. How you deal with them and the focus you have on playing your game largely dictates how those games unfold.
"Some teams rise to the occasion. Some teams relish that pressure and come out with big performances. But they are tough situations to be in, and we're faced with one in Game 6.
Bylsma did not want his players anywhere near Mellon Arena yesterday. When the Stanley Cup final schedule was set more than a week ago yesterday was going to be an off day for the team whether they had won or lost Saturday night.
When his players arrive at the arena today for practice and to begin preparations for their second elimination game of this postseason the message from their rookie head coach will be simple.
Get back to playing their game.
The Penguins uncharacteristically unraveled in the Game 5 loss in Detroit. They committed 12 penalties and allowed the Red Wings to find a rhythm with their previously slumping power play.
The Red Wings gleefully capitalized on the meltdown, scoring with the man-advantage three times in the all-important second period when the Red Wings took control of the series.
Sometimes a lopsided loss is easier to bounce back from than one that, for example, was decided by one goal in overtime. But having your confidence shaken at such a crucial point in the series can be a debilitating detriment, especially to a team with the number of young players the Penguins possess.
"I don't know what would be more heartbreaking, to lose one in overtime or the game we had [Saturday] night," Bylsma said. "We certainly didn't like the result. The bottom line is anything we attach to that game other than we need to play better in areas where we need to get better is going to take our focus away from what we need to do.
"We need to get the focus back on how we play, playing the right way and doing that for 60 minutes. That's our focus. Anything else, any other attachment to the frustration of that game is wasted energy and will not do us any good."
Despite the lack of discipline and poise in Game 5, veteran winger Bill Guerin is not worrying about the way the Penguins will react in Game 6. He said the maturity level of the younger players is underestimated.
"As a veteran you just try to keep guys together, make sure guys are OK and their heads are right," Guerin said. "I know we have a young team, but we have guys that are experienced and guys that are kind of made for this type of thing.
"Jordan Staal is 20 years old, but he seems like he's been in the league for 10 years. You don't really have to worry about guys like that. These guys seem to know how to really handle themselves, and it's pretty amazing."
In bouncing back from their most disappointing loss of the postseason the Penguins can also fall back on the success they have enjoyed at Mellon Arena in Games 3 and 4 when they outscored the Red Wings, 8-4, and evened the series.
For that reason, Bylsma said not a lot will change in the way he prepares his team for Game 6.
"There won't be a big change," he said. "I think change is the sign of an alarm bell and you set up the way you do things so that in situations like this we can act like we normally act. We can do the things we normally do ...
"I think getting refocused on the game is something we will do well because we've done this for the last two months, dealing with losses, dealing with adversity, dealing with situations like Game 7. Losing Game 5 [against Philadelphia] and going to Philly for Game 6. We've dealt with these situations the same way. I think that's going to help us get refocused for Game 6."
Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1230. First Published June 8, 2009 4:00 AM