Marc-Andre Fleury makes a save against the Avalanche Dec. 3. Before Thursday, opponents had scored first against the Penguins in six consecutive games. The Penguins were 3-2-1 in that stretch.
By Shelly Anderson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Center Jordan Staal chuckles a bit when he talks about a word the Penguins like to bandy about before they hit the ice.
"It's our mentality to just play our game and be unflappable. We talk about it before the game all the time," Staal said yesterday after the team practiced at Southpointe. "It's just a funny word that we use, unflappable, but it's big in our game."
Staal was talking about how well the defending Stanley Cup champions respond most of the time when they get behind, particularly when they give up the first goal in a game.
"We're not a bad comeback team," he said. "To us, it doesn't really faze us whether we do get the first goal. We're going to keep playing the same way."
The Penguins, like most teams, have more success when they open the scoring. They are 13-2 when they score first, 8-8-1 when they give up the first goal of the game.
Before defenseman Sergei Gonchar got them the icebreaker Thursday night in a 3-2 victory at Montreal, opponents had scored first in six games in a row. The Penguins were 3-2-1 in that stretch.
"It's always nice to get the first one, but if you get scored on first, you don't go into panic mode or anything like that," defenseman Mark Eaton said.
Matchup: Penguins vs. Florida Panthers, 7:38 p.m. today, Mellon Arena.
TV, Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WXDX-FM (105.9).
Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Tomas Vokoun for Panthers.
Penguins: Are 2-0 vs. Florida with OT and shootout wins. ... Ranked second in NHL with 26.9 shots against per game through yesterday. ... C Jordan Staal has 12 points in past 13 games.
Panthers: Had lost 3 in row overall, 4 in row on road before playing at New Jersey last night. ... Ranked last in league with 35.1 shots against through yesterday. ... Were 8-13 in shootouts over past two seasons before last night.
Hidden stat: This is Panthers' ninth set of games on back-to-back nights. They are 2-6 in second game.
Two of the Penguins' best examples of that have come against Florida, their opponent tonight at Mellon Arena.
On Oct. 23 at home, the Penguins spotted the Panthers not just the first goal but the first two, both in the first period. It remained 2-0 until Penguins center Sidney Crosby scored once short-handed and once on a power play in the third period to tie, then scored the only goal in a shootout to win it, 3-2.
On Nov. 23 at Florida, the Panthers scored once in the first period and again in the second, but the Penguins erased another 2-0 deficit with goals in the third -- by Pascal Dupuis and Mike Rupp -- before Crosby scored in overtime for a second 3-2 comeback win.
"I think it's just getting momentum," Crosby said. "It's just a matter of starting the right way, getting to your game. Sometimes you play well and maybe the other team gets a power play and they score one. That's the way it goes.
"But, hopefully, you're going to need more than one to win a hockey game, so if that does happen you're able to regroup."
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said he has learned to have faith in his team's goal-scorers even if he allows the first goal.
"Not just this year, but the past few years, I have confidence that it doesn't matter what the score is or what's going on," he said. "If I can focus on just making the next save and keep the game tight, I know we can come out and get some goals, even if [the opponent] scores first."
That's not the preferred route to a win, though.
"No question we're gunning for [the first goal] every time," Staal said. "It's just not going to happen every time, but we have a lot of character in this [locker] room."
Since Dan Bylsma took over as coach Feb. 15, the Penguins score first more often than not. It has happened in 31 of his 57 games, with the team going 27-2-2 when it gets the first goal.
And, at 12-9-3, the Penguins certainly aren't awful under Bylsma when they fall behind by 1-0.
"I think it is really more of 'how are we playing?' " Bylsma said. "If we were playing poorly and giving up the first goal, that would be a concern."
Against Montreal Thursday, the Penguins scored first and eventually won, but not before the Canadiens came back to take a short-lived 2-1 lead.
"On our bench we knew if we just got back to playing the right way we would be OK," Bylsma said. "That's the mentality we need to bring when we start the game -- play the right way, do the right thing."
Which not always results in the first goal.
"You don't go into a game saying, 'Let's get the first one,' " Eaton said. "Before a game you're talking about getting to our game, getting to our forecheck before they do. That's the biggest focus, not the first goal."
That's what makes them -- what's the word? -- unflappable.
NOTES -- Left winger Chris Kunitz, who is practicing with regular linemates Crosby and Bill Guerin, could return from an undisclosed injury as soon as tonight if he doesn't experience soreness from what was a short but strenuous practice. ... Gonchar was given the day off. ... Rupp, a Cleveland native and Browns fan and now also a Steelers fan, said he was pulling for the Steelers Thursday night "because I want to be able to root for someone down the stretch."