PITTSBURGH – Dan Bylsma remembers when Consol Energy Center opened a couple years ago and the Pittsburgh Penguins struggled to get comfortable in their fancy new digs.
The Pittsburgh Penguins coach heard the clamoring for the team to pack up and head back across the street to the decidedly antiquated – though plenty intimidating – Igloo. He couldn’t miss the chatter about how the “House That Mario Built” was too posh for its own good.
It was all Bylsma could to stop from laughing.
“We’ve won a lot of hockey games after that two or three games to start that season,” he said Friday. “We haven’t played well here (this season) we’re going to win a lot of home games.”
Might be a good time to get started.
The Penguins are the only team in the NHL yet to record a point at home. They’ve been outclassed in losses to the upstart Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Islanders, getting outscored 9-3. They’ve been punchless on the power play and pathetic on the penalty kill.
And yet this is the same team that has two wins at Madison Square Garden in the season’s first three weeks as well as road triumphs at Philadelphia and Ottawa. Pittsburgh shut down the New York Rangers 3-0 Thursday night in a competent – though Bylsma insists far from perfect – victory in which the Penguins sucked the life out of the Garden one smart play at a time.
“I thought we did a pretty good job of keeping everything most to the outside defensively,” center Sidney Crosby said. “We played with a lot of speed, a lot of pace. I think as far as a complete game goes that was the best job we did.”
A style that plays in stark contrast to the sometimes sloppy game the Penguins have played at Consol. The Islanders torched Pittsburgh 4-1 Tuesday night thanks in large part to 11 giveaways by the Penguins, two of which led directly to New York goals.
Bylsma has no plans on substituting the road jerseys in his players’ lockers today when they host the New Jersey Devils and he doesn’t buy into the thought that home teams – particularly ones loaded with offensive talent like the Penguins – have to put on a show to get the crowd energized. Bylsma said that argument has almost “zero credibility.”
Given a choice, Bylsma figures fans want to see winning hockey, regardless of style points. He pointed to Pittsburgh’s highly entertaining play at the end of last season as proof. The Penguins ended the regular season with a 21-3 push at home. They scored lots of goals. They gave up plenty too, and it didn’t translate into the playoffs, where they were ushered out of the postseason by rival Philadelphia in six wild games.
“I think very much we’re still finding exactly what our best game looks like and what we need to play like as opposed to a team that had most goals for last 20 games last year and also had a lot of goals against,” Bylsma said. “That’s not necessarily a team that did well in the playoffs with that mentality. Yesterday was a start. We’re building. We’ve got to build that trust and belief.”
There was plenty to like. Bylsma restructured the first power play unit and moved forward James Neal from the rover spot he had been playing into one a little closer to the goal, while Crosby did a little more work near the point.
The result was an electric power play goal early in the third period where Crosby took a pass from Evgeni Malkin then fired a laser at Neal’s stick. Neal expertly deflected the puck over Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to put the Penguins up 2-0.
It was the kind of lightbulb moment that seemed to give Pittsburgh a welcome energy boost. Simon Despres scored on a breakaway a few minutes later and the Penguins put the clamps down the rest of the way.
“There was nothing forced about that play,” Crosby said. “Nealer got to the net and Geno made a great entry. Those are all little things that added up to a nice play. There was no trying to pass through three guys to get a shot you would never take.”
While Bylsma thinks his team may have found something against the Rangers, the search for a winger to put alongside Malkin and Neal continues. Newcomer Zach Boychuk will get his chance on Saturday. The Penguins claimed Boychuk off waivers on Thursday and Bylsma plans to throw the former first-round pick into the mix to see if the speedy Boychuk can mesh with his two higher profile linemates.
The 23-year-old Boychuk has seven goals and 11 assists in 73 career games. Playing alongside the reigning MVP and an All-Star is pretty heady territory. He figures he’s got nothing to lose.
“Any time you’re in the NHL, there’s eyes on you and you’ve got to perform,” he said. “For me to jump into a game tomorrow, I think that’s the best way to do it. I don’t want to be waiting and anxious.
“I want to get right into it.”