Perfect road trip paved Penguins’ way to finals

Published 4:02 am Thursday, June 11, 2009

PITTSBURGH (AP) — If not for a perfect five-game road trip in the dog days of the regular season, the Pittsburgh Penguins probably wouldn’t be gearing up for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals.

They might not have even made the playoffs.

The trip started on Feb. 27, 11 days after Dan Bylsma replaced fired coach Michel Therrien, and it bridged the trade deadline when Pittsburgh acquired veteran forwards Bill Guerin and Craig Adams. An overtime victory over playoff-bound Chicago kicked it off, and a shootout win against Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals wrapped it up.

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The days of sitting below the playoff cutoff line in the Eastern Conference were over, and the Penguins could finally start thinking about repeating as Eastern Conference champions.

Starting with the trip, Pittsburgh went 15-2-3 in its final 20 games to grab the No. 4 seed in the East.

“We were in 10th or 11th place,” Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi said Wednesday, two days before Friday night’s Game 7 against the defending Cup champion Detroit Red Wings. “We won the first three, and then we made a couple of trades after that, picked up Billy and Adams.

“After that, once you saw the team play we had a realistic chance of really turning this around. For me, that was a turning point in the season.”

No matter what happens Friday in Detroit when the puck drops for Game 7, the Penguins can say they have gotten further than last year. In 2008, the season ended one game earlier against the Red Wings, who took Game 6 in Pittsburgh and paraded around the Mellon Arena ice with the Stanley Cup.

Not that the Penguins would feel any better to see the Red Wings celebrate again at home, but Pittsburgh at least knows it has a shot to win the Cup with one win in a place that hasn’t produced many happy moments for them.

The Penguins are 1-5 at Joe Louis Arena in the past two finals, and have been outscored there 11-2 in this series. Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby hasn’t scored a goal in any of those six games.

Pittsburgh was pushed to the brink of elimination Saturday night with a 5-0 loss in Detroit in Game 5. But the Penguins won Game 6 at home on Tuesday to keep the season alive. The Red Wings are 11-1 in their rink during this year’s playoffs, and are one win away from matching the record for most victories at home in a postseason run.

“I’m not a very good odds maker, so I’m not going to give you any odds,” Bylsma said of the Penguins’ chances. “We said it last night, said it before Game 6, that on Feb. 15 we all would have signed up for whatever odds we’ve got going into Game 6 against Detroit. That is an opportunity we’ll gladly take, and we’ve given ourselves an opportunity to do it in Game 7.

“Whatever the odds are, we’re going to take them. We’re going to go in there and be determined and play our game. We’ve given ourselves a chance to do what only one other team has, and that’s Detroit and us. We get one match for the Cup.”

Whether it’s the bouncing boards and the red-clad fans in Detroit, or the whiteout staged by Penguins fans in Pittsburgh, the home team has turned that support into a perfect 6-0 mark in the finals.

“We’re in a one game winner takes all,” Red Wings forward Kris Draper said. “We’re playing it in our building. We’re going to use everything we can in Detroit in Joe Louis to our advantage, and be ready to go, drop of the puck.”

The last time the championship round went seven games with the home team winning every one was in 2003 when New Jersey outlasted Anaheim. Back then, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock was behind the Mighty Ducks bench for that loss, and Bylsma was one of his wingers.

“Is the summer better if you win than if you lose? No question about it,” Babcock said, “but I’d say there are 28 teams sitting at home that would just love to be having this opportunity.

“To me, this is something that just adds on to your career. For the players, for coaches, for an organization, for everybody. It’s just a great thing. I think our players should really enjoy the next couple of days in their preparation so that words like fear don’t enter the picture one bit. Not even close.”

Bylsma had an opportunity to score in that Game 7 six years ago, a 3-0 loss for Anaheim, and his failed attempt to net a goal was immortalized in a newspaper photo the following day.

“A picture of me and Marty Brodeur with the puck in the air,” Bylsma recalled Wednesday. “That was my chance when it was 0-0, and I do remember it very vividly. That’s going to happen this next game. There’s going to be a chance. There’s going to be a play, a blocked shot to score a goal.