Penguins' mental toughness clinched series

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Dan Bylsma didn't have to read the newspaper to know that, five games into the Penguins' first-round playoff series against Philadelphia, Ruslan Fedotenko didn't have a goal.

Jordan Staal, either. Or Chris Kunitz. Or Sergei Gonchar.

Bylsma, the Penguins' interim coach, was well aware of their individual stats. He just didn't care much.

"I see how the media report that these guys haven't scored goals," he said. "That doesn't bother me. When the team plays the right way, guys will have a chance to get opportunities to put the puck in the net."

The Penguins did that in their 5-3 series-clinching victory Saturday in Philadelphia in Game 6 when, coincidentally or otherwise, they got goals from Fedotenko and Gonchar.

Bylsma allowed that "when [Fedotenko] scored, when [Gonchar] scored, it brought a smile to my face" because of the stories that noted they hadn't contributed any goals. But he isn't likely to deny that diversifying the offense a bit would serve the Penguins well when they move into Round 2 against a still-undetermined opponent.

Goals and assists aren't the only way to measure contributions, though, and some of the guys who can reasonably be expected to bump up their offensive output -- Matt Cooke (two assists) and Staal (one assist), for example -- actually are coming off strong performances against the Flyers.

Cooke and Staal teamed with Tyler Kennedy to form the Penguins' most consistently effective line, one that gave the Flyers fits from the earliest shifts of Game 1.

"They really set the tone for us in most games," Sidney Crosby said.

The solid work of Staal's line wasn't the only reason the Penguins were able to eliminate the Flyers in six games. Consider that the Penguins:

• Won 55.3 percent of their faceoffs, most of any team to this point in the playoffs.

• Outhit Philadelphia, known for its physical play, 143-142.

• Blocked 82 shots, second-most in the league.

• Killed 88.9 percent of the Flyers' power plays, good for sixth place in the rankings.

They probably went through the equivalent of a medium-sized glacier, too, because this is the time of year when ice bags are the No. 1 fashion accessory for NHL players.

If a guy doesn't have one strapped to his knee, elbow, shoulder, ankle or hand -- or some combination thereof -- after a game, chances are he has been doing hard time in the press box.

Certainly, there were plenty of those in evidence after Game 6, the Penguins' most impressive showing of the series. They controlled much more of the play than the final score suggests and showed real mental toughness and commitment by not wilting after the Flyers took a 3-0 lead.

"We kept our composure the whole time," Cooke said.

The Penguins played their best hockey when the stakes were highest, but only after losing their urgency at times in the middle of the series.

"We weren't very consistent," defenseman Rob Scuderi said.

Their power play was. Consistently unproductive, that is.

It scored on four of 29 chances, a dishwater-dull conversion rate of 13.8 percent.

"Certainly, [the power play] can make a huge difference for us if we want to keep going," Crosby said. "We've got to figure it out."

They'll try to clean up some other details, too, such as improving their grasp of defensive assignments and breaking out of their own end more effectively.

But they are still playing because of all they did well in Round 1. Because they got timely goals and some remarkable saves from goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Because they fed off adversity rather than being defeated by it.

"There were a lot of times we were behind the eight ball," Scuderi said, "and came back and played some good hockey."

That was particularly true Saturday, when the Penguins claimed their place in Round 2.

"[Game 6] was our best effort of the series," defenseman Mark Eaton said. "It's something that can carry us into the next round."


Dave Molinari can be reached at dmolinari@post-gazette.com .


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