- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 30, 2009

DETROIT — Not only did the defending Stanley Cup champions return every significant contributor from their title march, the Detroit Red Wings also added one of the game’s top snipers this offseason.

So why do the Pittsburgh Penguins expect the result to be different this year? For goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, it all starts with the team’s entrance to the ice surface.

Last year, Fleury led his Penguins out of the visiting dressing room at Joe Louis Arena for Game 1 - and promptly stumbled because he hit an unexpected patch of red carpet. He intends to be ready for it this time.

“Yeah, I also know the size of the door,” Fleury said to much laughter. “It is a little smaller here, so I’ve got to watch for that.”

Kidding aside, the experience that the Penguins obtained in a six-game loss to the Red Wings could prove to be valuable when the teams reconvene Saturday night for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Last season the Penguins were the upstarts, a young team full of players experiencing their first deep playoff run.

It showed in the first two games of the series - the Penguins went back to Pittsburgh with two more losses in the series than goals scored and were never able to recover despite playing better in the final four games.

“It was difficult for everyone - you dream your whole life about being in that position and you work so hard, but right at that moment you never know if you’ll have a chance to get back,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “We feel pretty fortunate to get a second chance here the following year.”

Added defenseman Rob Scuderi: “Now that we’ve played them, we know what to expect. In the first game we thought, ‘Oh, we didn’t have our best game.’ But in Game 2, we started to realize these guys are as good as everyone was talking about. I think now we’re more ready, and we know how good they can be.”

Another reason for optimism for Pittsburgh is a series of changes that transformed the club from an also-ran in the Eastern Conference back into a burgeoning superpower. With the club in 10th place in the East in mid-February, general manager Ray Shero fired coach Michel Therrien and replaced him with Dan Bylsma.

While Therrien helped the young Penguins establish a defensive awareness, Shero felt the team needed a new philosophy, and the aggressive-minded Bylsma has been a perfect fit. Much as Bruce Boudreau altered the identity of the Washington Capitals, Bylsma has done the same in Pittsburgh.

“Pittsburgh has gone through a huge cultural metamorphosis since they made the coaching change,” NBC analyst Pierre McGuire said. “And now rather than playing passive, resistance hockey, they’re playing aggressive, in-your-face, skilled hockey. They’re playing to their strengths rather than to their weakness.”

Shero also shook up the personnel, and for the third straight year he added key ingredients near the trade deadline. This time they were feisty forwards to play with Crosby - Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz - and in a much less-publicized maneuver he added Craig Adams after he was waived by Chicago. Last season’s big addition was Marian Hossa, who signed with the Red Wings in July.

The Penguins feature a pair of new-look lines: Crosby’s unit and a revamped philosophy with the fourth group. Bylsma has been dressing only 11 forwards and rotating Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal as the center on the fourth line with Adams and Miroslav Satan, who finished the regular season in the minors but has rebounded in the postseason.

Since outlasting the Philadelphia Flyers and dropping the first two games against Washington, the Penguins have found a new level of play, winning eight of nine contests. The added confidence from the past couple of weeks may prove to be the final piece for a team hoping to find a different result in this year’s championship round.

“Detroit is clearly the standard organization that everyone is matched against or compared to - as they should be,” Shero said. “What we have learned through the first three series [this year] is that we have a real good hockey team. We’ve got great experience, we’ve got great upper-end talent, we’ve got good goaltending, our special teams are clicking and we feel real good about ourselves.”

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