Pittsburgh Penguins\' Sidney Crosby celebrates his second-period goal against the Philadelphia Flyers in an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, April 2, 2008. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Gene J. Puskar)
PITTSBURGH - Sidney Crosby would have never admitted this a year ago but on the eve of his second NHL playoffs, the Pittsburgh Penguins superstar centre revealed just how awestruck he and his young teammates were when the puck first dropped last spring in Ottawa.
"The first 10 minutes," an introspective Crosby said Tuesday. "I mean, it felt like they had eight guys out there. We were just watching, trying to feel it out. They weren't. They were taking the play to us."
Even the great ones have to learn for themselves. No matter how much veterans such as Gary Roberts had warned his young bucks, the intensity and emotion of the NHL playoffs is something players must experience first-hand before knowing how to prepare for it.
"You can watch as much as you want but being in that atmosphere, being in that environment, knowing how to react and things like that - just having that sense of 'I've been through this before,"' said Crosby. "It's very emotional when you're in the playoffs so the more you're prepared for what can happen, the better you are."
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was another Penguin who got his first taste last year and like Crosby soon realized the difference come playoff time.
"The intensity - right from the beginning to the last minute of the end of the last game," Fleury said Tuesday after practice. "You know, sometimes during the regular season there are slow moments, you know what I mean. (In the playoffs) it keeps going, keeps going. It was fun to be part of. It is something else. Something you've got to live."
The upstart Penguins only got five playoff games under their belt in a first-round loss to Ottawa last April but it was enough to get a sense of what it's like and more importantly, they won't soon forget how much it hurt to get knocked out.
"Nobody likes to lose," said Crosby. "We have a lot of guys who have a lot of pride and character and don't accept losing. We want to be better for that experience and hopefully this is our chance to prove it."
Roberts has noticed the difference in his young teammates a year later.
"Mentally I think we're a stronger team this time around just because of what we went through in the playoffs last year and the adversity that we went through this season to finish second in the conference," said Roberts.
Crosby also points to the adversity his team faced this season as another growth factor. Both he and Fleury were among the long list of key injuries but the Penguins never lost a beat.
"It would have been easy to have a lot of excuses for not winning this year," said Crosby. "We lost our goalie for three months. Myself, Roberts, (Mark) Eaton... The list goes on. We came out of that, which I think says a lot about the character of our team. I think we're a stronger group than we were a year ago."
Crosby was flying on the ice during his team's practice ahead of Wednesday night's opener against the Senators in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarter-final (7 p.m. ET). Anyone who saw him skate Tuesday would not believe all the rumours suggesting the 20-year-old native of Cole Harbour, N.S., is still hampered by the high ankle sprain that knocked him out of 28 games from January to March.
"I'm fine," he said. "I think there's a lot of speculation with my ankle because they sat me out on Sunday (in Pittsburgh's regular-season finale). But that's really not the case. It was more of just getting a rest and just making sure that I'm ready for the playoffs.
"But the ankle is giving me no problems whatsoever."
That's a scary thought for Senators fans who saw him collect five points (3-2) in his first five career playoff games last spring despite, it was later revealed, playing on a broken foot.
Now he says he's healthy this time around, until that is, a Senators player gives him a two-hand chop a la Bobby Clarke on his ankle. That was the suggestion of a columnist in Tuesday's edition of the Ottawa Sun, a story that quickly made the rounds of the Penguins dressing room.
"It wouldn't be the first time something like that happened," said Crosby, shrugging off the story. "Teams obviously read injury reports. If a guy has a bad shoulder I'm sure you're not going to ease up on him and not hit him. Whether or not deliberately do it? Who knows, but that's why the refs are out there to police the game and make sure that stuff doesn't happen."
The puck has yet to drop in this series and already there's plenty to write about. Senators head coach Bryan Murray tried to stir the pot as well after Monday's practice in Ottawa when he implied the Penguins purposely lost Sunday's game in Philadelphia to draw the Senators instead of the Flyers. It was a veteran move by the longtime coach and GM, hoping it would motivate his own players. The Penguins weren't biting on Tuesday.
"First of all, it's so ridiculous I don't even want to comment," said Penguins head coach Michel Therrien.
"We know that we didn't go out there to throw the hockey game," added Roberts. "I've never put my skates on in my career where I've gone out hoping to lose or wanting to lose."
Said Crosby: "I don't think we're worried about it. We trust the character and pride in this room."