- Scott Burnside, NHL
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PITTSBURGH -- Last season, the Pittsburgh Penguins were like a box full of puppies. Cute, cuddly, with the promise of something bigger, something with more snarl, more bite in the offing. But, in the end, a box full of puppies.
On this Tuesday morning, on the eve of a second straight playoff date with the Ottawa Senators, that box has long been kicked aside, and we're about to see whether this team has indeed grown from cuddly to killer.
"I've seen a lot of good teams on paper, but the bottom line is, you've still go to go out and perform, and you're right, we haven't done that, we haven't done that yet," veteran Gary Roberts told a handful of reporters.
Roberts said the Pens fared as well as anyone in the Eastern Conference last season, given that the Senators dispatched all three conference opponents in five games before losing in five to Anaheim in the Stanley Cup finals.
"So, did we learn from that experience? I hope so," Roberts said. "I hope we learned from that experience and we're going to go into this playoff a little better prepared."
The man who won a Stanley Cup in Calgary back in 1989 and whose career was thought to be over a dozen years ago has had a unique view on this Pittsburgh team's evolution. Roberts broke his leg in late December and watched the Pens play through injuries to No. 1 netminder Marc-Andre Fleury (ankle) and Sidney Crosby (high ankle sprain).
At the time, the question was whether the Penguins could play well enough to stay in the hunt for a playoff berth. In the end, though, Ty Conklin provided stellar, if unexpected, goaltending and Evgeni Malkin surged to the top of the league scoring list, finishing second to countryman Alexander Ovechkin as the Penguins won the Atlantic Division and finished with the No. 2 seed in the conference.
"Obviously, expectations, I think, were a bit of a factor for us even early in the season," Roberts said. "It took us a little while to get going. But this team went through a lot of adversity, really stuck together this season. And for me, personally, to watch this team play over the last three months has been a real treat. Everybody chipped in, everybody did their job.
"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."
For some, there is comfort in not really being expected to win. Two seasons ago, the Penguins were 29th in the 30-team NHL. In 2006-07, few expected them to challenge for a playoff berth despite their emerging talent. Now, the puppy is out of the box, as it were. There's no place for this team to hide from the glare of being expected to win.
Former coach Pierre McGuire, now a national analyst in Canada and the United States, said he thinks there is a different vibe in the Pittsburgh dressing room this spring. "No question," he said. "You can feel a different attitude on their bench than last year."
McGuire, who often reports from between the players' benches during telecasts, said he hears a vibrancy that wasn't apparent before, players egging each other on, excited for their teammates' successes.
When the Penguins started slowly (7-10-1 through their first 18), people started doubting them, said veteran defenseman Darryl Sydor, who was brought in during the offseason to provide stability to a young blue-line corps. When Crosby and Fleury went down, people doubted even more. "But we came together. We believed all along we're a good team," Sydor said.
The fact that management went out and acquired the top forward available on the trade market at the deadline, Marian Hossa, also reinforces to the players that management believes this team is capable of a long playoff run.
There is a double-edged sword when a player such as Hossa is brought into the organization. Yes, it means management is wagering significant assets or futures that the team's time is now. But, having made that wager, the pressure builds, not just on Hossa to deliver but on everyone in the dressing room.
If the team doesn't have success, it will have taken a significant step back in its development, given that Hossa almost certainly will sign somewhere else in the offseason.
"I think they're a much-improved team," former New York Rangers GM and current analyst Neil Smith said. "They're a much better team in that they're in Year 2 of their rise to the top. I don't think that they're there yet. But who knows?"
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.