Penguins mindset: Be sharp when playoffs start

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By the time a little more than a dozen Penguins convene for practice today, the Olympic hockey tournament will be over. The team's seven players who participated in the Sochi Games will be back soon. The NHL will return from its slumber of more than two weeks.

At that point, the horizon will come racing toward the Penguins as they pretty much jump right into the stretch drive. For them, play resumes Thursday with a game against Montreal at Consol Energy Center. It's one of 24 remaining games in the season over 61/2 weeks. That includes 16 games next month.

"March is going to be crazy," Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said.

This is a club that constantly assesses priorities and sets goals. There were key things the Penguins wanted to do in the 10 games leading up to the Olympic break, most prominently hit the 40-win mark. They did that.

There are several marks and goals that are attainable over the balance of the season. They include:

* Continuing to run away with the Metropolitan Division. The Penguins, with 83 points in 58 games, have a 16-point lead over the second-place New York Rangers;

* Wrap up the Eastern Conference. They are five points ahead of Boston;

* Overtake the three Western Conference teams to finish first in the league and earn the Presidents' Trophy;

* Have center Sidney Crosby win the scoring title (with 78 points, he has an 11-point lead over Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf), and Fleury reach his coveted 40 wins for the third time. He leads the league with 31.

According to a sampling of the Penguins non-Olympians, the team's priorities include those markers -- sort of.

"I'm sure that's something we'll talk about as a team when everybody gets back -- what are some concrete goals that we want to focus on, whether it's being first in the East or trying to get first overall," forward Craig Adams said.

"But, ultimately, those are short-term goals that you focus on for one reason, and that's to get you playing good hockey. What matters most is being at the top of your game when the playoffs start."

As readily as Fleury points to 40 wins in a season as his biggest measure of personal achievement, he's arm-in-arm with his teammates when it comes to the team's most important priority.

"The top thing is not the stats," he said. "You can't measure with stats. It's just getting ready for the playoffs. That's the most important thing, and bringing that night in and night out."

Perennial Stanley Cup contenders who have fallen short the past four springs, the Penguins see a valuable correlation between winning some regular-season titles and being honed for the postseason.

"I think the mindset is that we're getting ourselves as ready as we can for the first round," center Brandon Sutter said. "I think our goal should be the Presidents' Trophy. We want to be the best team in the league. We want to clinch home ice all through the playoffs. If we do that, we're going to be playing the right way and we'll be ready for the playoffs."

Winger Tanner Glass reversed the chicken-and-egg designations, but he sees the same overall priorities.

"The main thing is playing good hockey," he said. "If we're playing well and we're taking care of the little things that it takes to be successful, those [tangible goals] are things that will fall into place. For us, it's about tuning our game and making sure we're playing well come playoff time."

Coming up quickly are a couple of circled dates.

Saturday night, the Penguins will face the Chicago Blackhawks outdoors at Soldier Field, part of the NHL's Stadium Series. Four days later is the NHL trade deadline, after which the roster will be settled.

Half the Penguins' 16 games in March are against Western Conference teams, including the three ahead of them in the overall standings -- Anaheim, St. Louis and Chicago.

The game against the Blackhawks is the first of five consecutive road games, the first four of which are in Western cities, including a West Coast trip next week for games on back-to-back nights against San Jose and Anaheim. San Jose is one spot behind the Penguins in the overall standings.

The Penguins will attempt to elbow their way past those teams while trying to regain their rhythm with a mix of players who had what Glass called a chance to "mentally check out for a little bit" during the break or who are coming off the emotional highs and lows of playing in Sochi.

"There are going to be a few games where everyone is going to be rusty, not having been together or played NHL hockey in a while," defenseman Rob Scuderi said. "That's understandable.

"But, when you get down to that last, oh, 15 games, the most important thing is that you get your game in the right place. The wins are nice. You want them. You want to win your division, win your conference.

"You have those goals set in your head. But I'd rather take a team that's got its stuff together, especially a team that's in a good position like we are."

 


Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly. First Published February 23, 2014 12:23 AM

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