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Thursday, May 1, 2014
Intensity building ahead of Pens-Rangers

By Scott Burnside



PITTSBURGH -- We can all pretty much agree that there’s nothing quite like a Philadelphia Flyers-Pittsburgh Penguins playoff series.

Maybe it’s the pheromones, maybe it’s the similar zip codes, maybe it’s just that the two teams flat-out can’t stand each other (that would be our vote) ... there’s something off the charts when these two teams meet in the postseason.

But if you were looking for any disappointment to be voiced in the Penguins' locker room Thursday that the Flyers fell short of making that happen for the second time in three years (and the fourth time in seven years) when they fell a goal short of the New York Rangers in Game 7, well, you’d be sorely mistaken.

Veteran defenseman Rob Scuderi -- back with the Penguins after spending four years in Los Angeles, where he won a Cup with the Kings in 2012 -- thinks the intensity between teams is driven up naturally as the playoffs move along.

“Each time you win a round, you’re that much closer to the finals and a Stanley Cup, so the intensity is just naturally there,” Scuderi told ESPN.com on the eve of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series between the Rangers and Penguins. “There’s just nothing you can do. I think you feel it in the building. You feel it in your teammates and you feel it in the opposition. You feel the desperation for just that next play, the next loose puck. Whatever it happens to be, you can feel and it only goes up as time goes on.”

At this time last year, Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma was describing the difference between the first and second rounds. It went something like this: The first round is wacky, off-its-axis hockey where anything can happen. The second round, the survivors take a deep breath and, in theory, it’s easier to get back into a kind of groove.

Scuderi supports the chaos theory of the first round.

“I think for the most part the first round can be a bit crazy,” he said. “And you get that first few games under your belt, you’re super intense and the second round, not that the intensity dies down, but you tend to focus a little more on things that are under your control instead of maybe getting worried about momentum swings. I think you have a more even keel as things go on because you’re used to playing at that intense level.”

Bylsma said it’s a little harder to get a read on the Rangers given that they have evolved since the two teams did the bulk of their work against each other this season. The Rangers got better after a rocky start and swapped out gritty Ryan Callahan for skilled veteran forward Martin St. Louis at the trade deadline, further changing the complexion and identity of the team.

The Rangers boast plenty of speed and depth up front with Benoit Pouliot, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello forming a dangerous second line to complement the high-powered top line of Derek Stepan, Rick Nash and St. Louis. The team’s third line is anchored by former playoff MVP Brad Richards.

The defense is balanced and tough with Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi providing significant shutdown capabilities.

Then there’s Henrik Lundqvist.

“It’s going to be every bit of a test,” Bylsma said.

As for the Penguins, they endured an up-and-down series against Columbus, but Bylsma thought they played their best games of the season in winning Games 5 and 6.

The key was in playing in the Columbus zone, launching a lot of shots on goal and essentially playing smart defense by controlling the puck in the offensive zone.

“In Games 5 and 6, we were the best at playing that way,” Bylsma said.

The Penguins did not have defenseman Brooks Orpik on the ice for the team’s practice Thursday, but with Robert Bortuzzo in the lineup for Games 5 and 6, the Penguins did not give up much defensively the past two games -- apart from a lull late in Game 6 after they’d built a 4-0 lead.

The key is to take those positives and move forward without dwelling too much on the past.

“I think that’s what the playoffs are about, you have to turn the page pretty quickly and refocus,” said captain Sidney Crosby, who had six assists in the first round but hasn’t scored in 11 straight postseason games.

As for momentum, that’s something that evolves, it's not carried from round to round.

“I think each series you kind of have to create your own,” Crosby said.

And so the Rangers, who will end up playing five games in eight nights, and the Penguins prepare to hit the emotional reset button.

“Yeah, I think you have to,” Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “Every series kind of takes on a life of its own and it’s a little bit different against every team that you play. There’s different aspects to what's going on.

“The series don’t connect. Different teams, the matchup is entirely different. Closing out a series, we’re happy to be moving on, simple as that. Could we have done some things better? Sure we could have.”