Coming off their first win under interim coach Dan Bylsma, the Penguins yesterday flew to Philadelphia for the start of an important two-game stretch.
They play the Flyers today, and Washington tomorrow. Both games are on the road, where the Penguins 1-7-2 in their past 10 contests. Both are in the afternoon, when the Penguins are 2-5-1.
Philadelphia is 17-7-3 at home and sits fourth in the Eastern Conference. Washington is better -- 23-4-1 at home and tied for second in the conference, both before a game last night against Colorado.
The Flyers are longtime rivals, and games with the Capitals have taken on a marked intensity with the matchup between Washington winger Alex Ovechkin and Penguins centers Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby -- the three have dominated the NHL scoring race most of the season, and Russians Ovechkin and Malkin recently settled a personal feud.
Both games offer the Penguins an opportunity to get more attuned to the coaching style of Bylsma, who took over Sunday night for fired coach Michel Therrien.
More important, the Penguins have a chance to maneuver upward in the conference standings, where just six points separate the fifth-place New York Rangers at 68 points and the Penguins, who are in 10th, two below the playoff cutoff, at 62 points.
Not that there's any drama attached to the weekend or anything.
"They're big games," Crosby said. "They're all big games from here on in, but they're going to be emotional games. I think that's a good thing for us.
"Our emotion is going to be there. It has to be there. Our mentality is a playoff one right now. When you're playing the couple teams we have this weekend, it's pretty easy to get in that mind-set anyway. I think that's going to be there."
The Penguins have earned three of a possible four points under Bylsma, including a 5-4 win at home Thursday against Montreal. He's looking for continued momentum.
"We've got to hit the ground running, and we're doing it against two rivalry teams, two important teams, and on the road," he said.
Bylsma has kept the same system as Therrien but has asked the Penguins to ramp up their speed and aggressiveness. He has had just two practices and a morning skate to get his points across.
"It really shouldn't be considered a new way of playing," defenseman Hal Gill said. "We're a little more assertive, and, with that, we have to work out all the kinks -- but now is a good time to get over those kinks pretty quick and go at them and dictate the pace of the game."
Bylsma played 429 games in the NHL, but they were all for Western Conference teams. He was an assistant or head coach the past two-plus seasons for the Penguins' minor league club, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, which has something of an American Hockey League rivalry with the Philadelphia Phantoms.
Although he has never witnessed Penguins-Flyers games -- "It will be my first taste of it live," he said -- Bylsma seems to have a pretty good grasp of what they entail.
He listed just about every aspect of the rivalry except the way the Wachovia Center organist accompanies the Flyers fans' anti-Crosby chants.
"It's a passionate one," Bylsma said. "It lends to the more chippy side, physical side.
"You're talking about an in-state rivalry. Every year, there seems to be a story line with one team winning all the games, the next year the playoffs. It's intense. It's a great building with great fans in both arenas. It's set up perfectly for a great rivalry game."
And that's just the agenda for the first half of the two-stop trip.
"It should be a pretty busy weekend with those two teams," goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. "They're two very good teams this year.
"It's going to be a good challenge for us. The race is so tight to make the playoffs, we've got to make sure we get points and keep climbing in the standings."
There will be no climbing unless the Penguins can correct their numbers on the road and in day games.
After these two games, they play six of their next eight on the road. They also will have as many as seven more day games, depending on the NHL's flex weekend scheduling.
"I don't really pay attention to when we're good and when we're bad," Gill said. "We're a new team with a new attitude. Hopefully, that carries over. I think we understand the situation. These are two big games for us.
"I can't see us not being ready for it."
Matchup: Penguins at Philadelphia Flyers, 1:08 p.m., Wachovia Center, Philadelphia.
Internet: Live blog of the game at Empty Netters
TV/Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WXDX-FM (105.9).
Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Martin Biron for Flyers.
Penguins: Are 3-1 vs. Flyers. ... Are 13-14 in one-goal games. ... C Evgeni Malkin has 2 goals, 2 assists and is plus-3 over past four games.
Flyers: Have won three games in row by 16-6 margin. ... Have won 11 of past 14 home games. ... In past three starts, Biron is 3-0 with 2.02 GAA and .949 save percentage.
Hidden stat: Flyers are only NHL team that has not yielded a short-handed goal, and they lead league with 15 short-handed goals scored.
Shelly Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1721. First Published February 21, 2009 5:00 AM