Key word heading into Game 5? Focus
PITTSBURGH -- There is the playoff abyss, and then there is the playoff oasis of the next round.
For teams staring at either, it's probably best not to get too caught up in the view. At least that would appear to be the logic heading into Game 5 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals here Thursday night.
The Philadelphia Flyers, of course, will still be smarting from a 3-1 home loss in Game 4 that saw them outshoot Pittsburgh 46-25 and their potent power play go 0-for-8. They will be facing elimination knowing the franchise has never rebounded from a 3-1 series deficit and such a comeback rarely happens, about 8.7 percent of the time, to be exact. It is something that hasn't happened since before the lockout.
Those are the kinds of odds that stare back at you from the edge of playoff elimination.
The Penguins, meanwhile, will be trying not to look too far into the future, trying not to start imagining a well-earned break while Washington and the New York Rangers and Carolina and New Jersey beat each other up before the start of the second round next week.
"It's always the toughest one to get. I think we've learned that and realize that," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said Wednesday after only a handful of Pittsburgh players took to the ice at Mellon Arena. "When you're put in that situation, you'd be surprised what teams can do. So we still think we have more to add in our game and more to bring, so it's up to us to do that.
"A team doesn't get any more desperate than in a situation like that," added Crosby, who has six points in four games, one behind playoff leader and teammate Evgeni Malkin. "We have to use our experience from the past and make sure we come up with a big game."
Ah, experience. Seems like only yesterday we were talking about a Penguins team that was talented but lacked the necessary know-how to succeed in the playoffs. Yet, there the Penguins were a year ago, racing out to 3-0 leads in each of the first three rounds. They closed out Ottawa in four straight and beat the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers on home ice in a fifth game after dropping the fourth game on the road in both series.
Almost overnight, they became a team short on experience, but long on killer instinct. Does that mean anything this time around? Well, only if you apply the lessons with a healthy dose of hard work.
"I think you just know what to expect a little bit more," Crosby said. "It's still up to everyone to go out there and execute and do the right things, but knowing what to expect certainly makes a bigger difference."
If you're the Penguins, it appears the biggest challenge will be in not letting up, in not assuming because the finish line is in sight that the race is over. Certainly the mantra in the Penguins' dressing room remains constant from before the playoffs began: Play the game; don't worry about anything else.
"This isn't Game 5, it's not about trying to close out Game 4, it's about going out and playing a game like we have for the past 25 games and believing that if we do that, the end result will be successful on Thursday," Pittsburgh assistant coach and longtime NHLer Tom Fitzgerald told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "It's really the way you prepare, the way you focus, the way you concentrate.
"Yeah, tomorrow's game could be the close-out game, but it's still a 60-minute game that has to be played the right way."
If there is reason to suspect the Penguins won't be overconfident, it's the fact they escaped Philadelphia having stolen Game 4 from the Flyers, thanks almost entirely to goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury's spectacular play. That was reinforced in a team meeting Wednesday.
"We talked this morning about what we did well and it came back to [No.] 29 pretty much throughout the game," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "He was there making the big saves when we had breakdowns.
"We've got to have that same desperation and battle level," Bylsma said. We've got to execute a little bit better and get to the offensive zone and apply it there instead of in front of our goalie. Right from the start of the game, we've got to bring it."
Although recent history has proved this is a team that can keep its eye on the prize, players have niggling memories that will reinforce nothing is a given in this game.
Scrappy forward Tyler Kennedy, who has been something of a revelation in this series with two goals including Tuesday's game winner Tuesday, recalled his junior team blowing a 3-1 series lead. Kennedy was playing for his hometown Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and lost to the Windsor Spitfires. Kennedy's Greyhounds posted the ultimate playoff meltdown, blowing a 3-0 lead. "I don't want it to be a repeat," he said.
The Flyers, meanwhile, must put the "what-ifs" out of their minds and ignore the fact that history suggests they are cooked like Christmas dinner.
"The challenge for us is just to focus on the game," Flyers coach John Stevens said after the team's practice before jetting to Pittsburgh Wednesday afternoon. "You can't focus on the result at the end. You have to focus on playing the game. Pittsburgh is going to come out hard and we have to be ready to push back. The start of that game is going to be important."
After recording a power-play goal in each of the first three games of the series, the Flyers came up dry when they needed it most in Game 4. That will have to be rectified if they hope to extend this series.
"We haven't gotten over the edge there. As a group in the playoffs, it's about winning the game," Philadelphia veteran forward Mike Knuble said. "We can all look back at what has happened and say we played pretty well, but we haven't gotten to equalize the series. They have found a way to win."
Flyers players also optimistically noted they have been much more competitive in this series than in last season's Eastern Conference finals, where they also trailed the Penguins 3-1.
"It has been much more competitive," Knuble said. "It's the same situation as a year before, but we might have been more of a cooked team then and our destiny was more determined."
Captain Mike Richards said there remains great optimism in the Flyers' dressing room.
"Right now, you can feel with the group today, you feel the energy, the excitement," he said. "We still feel like we have a great team good enough to win."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.