They have eight players on their roster who won the Stanley Cup in 2009, yet the Pittsburgh Penguins continue to gain knowledge in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
That was true in the first round, as the Penguins needed every drop of sweat to send the Columbus Blue Jackets home for the summer. As coach Dan Bylsma said late on Monday night following the Penguins' Game 6 victory, a new rivalry has been born. You can bet the Jackets would love to meet the Penguins in the post-season again next spring and would be fully prepared to give Pittsburgh another battle in which no inch of ice is handed over.
For the Penguins, however, it's on to the second round against the winner of the New York Rangers-Philadelphia Flyers series. The Jackets didn't push the Penguins to the brink in that the Eastern Conference quarterfinal, failing to force a seventh game, but Pittsburgh not only is a black-and-blue bunch going forward, but also one that lost chunks in its resolve as the Jackets wouldn't go quietly.
The Penguins were reminded that building leads and sitting on them isn't a great idea. They blew multiple-goal leads in Games 2 and 4, and it nearly happened again in Game 6 but Columbus was unable to score a fourth goal after getting three in the third period to carve away at a 4-0 deficit.
"Sometimes you learn lessons and you can't recover and you are out of the playoffs," Penguins winger James Neal said on Monday after the clincher. "We just needed to continue to stay on the gas, we let up a little bit. It's discipline, but you can't let that take away from our series win.
"We'll definitely look back and learn from this series. That's what you have to do, mature and continue to get better."
The Penguins won't know until Wednesday night whether they will face the Rangers or the Flyers, but some subplots already are starting to take shape.
Sidney Crosby will go into the series without a goal in his previous 11 playoff games, the longest post-season drought of his NHL career. Crosby had six assists versus the Jackets -- and there's no question his game picked up after Bylsma put Evgeni Malkin on his line, along with Chris Kunitz. Crosby had a 50.7% faceoff-winning percentage, going 72-70 in the faceoff circle, a dip from his 52.5% clip during the regular season.
Bylsma's decision to use Malkin with Crosby was his best among many adjustments he made as the series progressed and you would think the pair will be reunited for the semifinals.
The Penguins need more from their top two forwards. Consider that defencemen Matt Niskanen and Paul Martin shared Pittsburgh's scoring lead in the first round with eight points each. That's nice for their resumes, but any team with Crosby and Malkin on it should see those players' names at the top of the scoring list. Their levels of play have to rise.
A question mark for the Penguins involves the health of centres Brandon Sutter and Joe Vitale and defenceman Brooks Orpik. Sutter and Vitale were hurt in the finale and the absence of either for any span would be a blow for the Penguins. Orpik missed Games 5 and 6, but the Penguins inserted Robert Bortuzzo on the blue line and got by.
And there's goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who didn't convince all observers he can still help lead the Penguins to another Cup final. Five long years have passed since Fleury was most recently able to do that and a .908 save percentage in six games against the Jackets will require clear improvement in the next week or two.
"Was every goal perfect? Was he perfect? No," Bylsma said. "In Game 3, he let two goals in the first five minutes and answered the bell with his play. You can say that again (in Game 6).
"There was not a ton of activity for him in the first half of the game, but when they scored the shorthanded, and in the next 10 minutes he made four or five huge saves (but also allowed two goals).
"He still had to make three or four huge saves for us and answer with his play and he did. That gets us four wins, that gets us moving on."