Penguins' divisional success a big boost

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It wasn't until they put together a streak of nine games with at least one point in January that the 2006-07 Penguins convinced the masses they were solid playoff, division and conference contenders, but in hindsight there was an early clue.


Tomorrow
  • Game: Penguins vs. New Jersey Devils, 7:38 p.m.
  • Where: Mellon Arena.
  • TV: FSN Pittsburgh.

The Penguins last season were 5-1 in their first six Atlantic Division games, all in October within their first nine games.

After a 105-point performance and second-place divisional finish, this season greeted them with much greater expectations.

There will be, however, no such early barometer this time.

Not because the Penguins have alternated losses and wins through four games, but because division games are scarce the first four weeks of the schedule.

Although they play each of the other four Atlantic teams eight times a season, the home game tomorrow against New Jersey is their division opener, in their fifth game. They have just two division games in their first 13 contests in the first four weeks of the season, the other being a home game next Tuesday against the New York Rangers.

By the time the Penguins play Nov. 3 on the road against the New York Islanders for their third of 32 division games, they will have faced Toronto and Montreal twice -- half their games in those series -- and three of the nine Western Conference teams they play once this season.

It's that way across the Atlantic this season, with the five teams playing two to four division games in October.

Defenseman Sergei Gonchar insists it is no different preparing for or playing against reigning Stanley Cup champion Anaheim, whom the Penguins topped, 5-4, in their home opener and won't see again until 2009-10, than it is against an opponent your team will see again and again.

"Getting two points in those games count the same as in division games," Gonchar said. "We just have to play our style, no matter who we're playing."

Others say it's impossible to overlook the implications of head-to-head play in the division.

"These are four-point games," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "They're always a little bit bigger. I think there's always a little extra motivation when you're playing a divisional team."

Statistics would seem to support a notion that players are at their best in those so-called four-point games.

The Penguins last season were 20-9-3 against the other Atlantic teams, good for 43 points in 32 games, with barely one losing record. They were 8-0 against Philadelphia, 5-1-2 against the Islanders, 4-4 against the Rangers and 3-4-1 against division champion New Jersey.

Several players had big numbers in divisional games. Crosby had 49 points in 31 games, winger Mark Recchi 30 points in 32 games, Gonchar 29 points in 32 games, and defenseman Ryan Whitney 21 points in 32 games.

"When you play a team enough times, there's a familiarity, and when you get in your division, you get excited," Recchi said. "You have the rivalries."

The NHL adopted this version of an unbalanced schedule before the 2005-06 season, in large part to develop intradivisional rivalries. The system has been criticized for a lack of interconference play and for having too many divisional games -- "I think eight games is too much," Recchi said -- and the league has toyed with the idea of change.

The various series can spawn subplots, such as the Penguins' successful drive to sweep 16 points from Philadelphia last year.

"Sometimes games get chippy, games against certain teams get pretty intense, but the first game you never know what to expect," said Whitney, adding that the long series offer the chance to make adjustments and improvements.

"When you play them once you might say before the next game, 'I have to do this better.' "

The Penguins' lack of division games the first month of the schedule gives way to a flood -- nine Atlantic teams in a row starting with that Nov. 3 Islanders game. Things are Atlantic-heavy down the stretch in March and April, too, with their final eight games and 10 of their last 11 against division teams.

Eventually, the Penguins will become all too familiar with the 2007-08 versions of the other division teams.

"It's kind of interesting to see the first game, the changes," Whitney said.


Shelly Anderson can be reached at shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.


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