PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins have insisted throughout their dominant regular season that the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs - the one where they have dropped two consecutive series - is the only thing that matters.
They will get a chance to back up their words beginning Wednesday night (7:30 p.m. ET) at Consol Energy Center when they begin the pursuit of the fourth championship in franchise history against the upstart New York Islanders.
"This is what we play the game for," Penguins centre Brandon Sutter said. "We've been waiting for this."
The Penguins have also been waiting for Sidney Crosby to return to the lineup. He has been out since March 30 when he sustained a broken jaw in a game against the Islanders.
Crosby's availability for Game 1
remained in doubt less than 24 hours before the series opener. He has been skating with the Penguins for a week, but until Crosby is cleared to absorb contact, he will not be permitted to play in the playoff opener.
"As soon as he says the word," Crosby said of his doctor, "I'll play. I'll wear anything to play. Whether it's a football helmet or whatever. Whatever it takes."
Even if Crosby is unable to being the series, the Penguins are loaded with enough talent to make a deep run this spring.
Reigning Hart Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin, bothered by a shoulder injury most of the season, displayed his best form of the campaign during the final three games of the regular season. He played sporadically in the second half of the season but seems to have found himself.
"Geno looks like Geno," Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said.
Malkin has been reunited on a line with left wing Chris Kunitz and right wing James Neal.
Jussi Jokinen could replace Crosby on top line
If Crosby is unable to play, he will be replaced on the top line by centre Jussi Jokinen, who has produced 11 points in 10 games since being acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes. Jokinen will centre Crosby's presumed post-season linemates, right wing Jarome Iginla and left wing Pascal Dupuis.
"I don't know if Sid's playing or not," Jokinen said. "So, I don't know what my role will be. But I'm going to do everything to help this team win, no matter what."
Winning against the Islanders has never been an easy proposition for the Penguins.
These franchises have met three times in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Islanders haven't just won all three series, but have done so in gut-wrenching fashion.
- In 1975, the Penguins took a 3-0 series lead before the Islanders roared back to win four straight games, winning the series thanks to a 1-0 victory in Game 7.
- In 1982, in a best-of-five series, the Penguins dropped the first two games before winning Games 3 and 4. The Penguins then blew a lead in the final minutes of the deciding fifth game before losing in overtime on a John Tonelli goal.
- In 1993, the Penguins were two-time defending champions and the overwhelming favorite to win the Stanley Cup. However, the Islanders shocked the greatest regular-season team in Penguins' history as New York skated off with a win against Mario Lemieux and Co. in Game 7 thanks to a David Volek overtime goal.
The current installment of the Islanders, led by MVP candidate John Tavares, has the Penguins' attention.
"They're an extremely talented team," Penguins defenceman Paul Martin said. "We know how skilled they are up front."
While Tavares understandably receives much of the publicity around the Islanders, the Penguins are equally as concerned about speedster Michael Grabner, who has given them fits in the past.
Grabner is a game-breaker and the Penguins know they must be aware of him.
"You don't really have to change your game too much," former Islander and current Penguins defenceman Mark Eaton said. "But you do have to be aware of where he is on the ice. He's got world-class speed."
The Penguins, of course, possess world-class talent and are expected by many to roll in this series.
Losers of three straight series, including two in the first round, the Penguins aren't about to get ahead of themselves.
"I think they'll be just fine," said Carolina centre Jordan Staal, when asked to offer his thoughts on the series. "But you still have to be careful. It's the playoffs. Anything can happen."
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