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Pesky Penguins confident they'll disprove doubters -- and avoid another playoff implosion

CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. -- One of the hallmarks of the Pittsburgh Penguins' playoff runs in recent years has been that they repeatedly revealed themselves as a team that did not respond well to adversity.

Call it a bend-then-break mentality.

Without Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby in 2011, the Penguins blew a 3-1 series lead against the Tampa Bay Lightning and lost Game 7 at home.

They were down 3-0 to the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round the next year before losing in six games during a brief, forgettable spring for netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, and then in 2013 the Penguins advanced to the Eastern Conference finals, where they scored only two goals while being swept by the Boston Bruins.

In 2014, Pittsburgh blew a 3-1 series lead to the New York Rangers, and last spring the Rangers again dusted the Pens, who were hobbled by a slew of injuries to their blue line, this time in five games. Pittsburgh lost all four games 2-1.

Instead of becoming a dynasty following their twin trips to the Stanley Cup finals in 2008 and 2009, the Penguins became something wholly different -- and wholly underwhelming.

But the team that heads into Game 1 of its third consecutive playoff clash with the Rangers on Wednesday night is one that appears to have redefined its identity when it comes to facing down challenges.

Maybe that's why it might not matter whether Fleury starts in goal -- which looks likely, given his participation in practice the last two days -- or whether any of the other injured Penguins suit up.

"Marc is day-to-day right now with his injury," Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said after the Penguins skated at their suburban practice facility Tuesday.

"We'll evaluate as best we can where we think he is as far as his performance and his timing. In a perfect world, we'd love to have gotten him in a game prior to this, but it didn't work out that way. And so we'll do the best job we can in making the appropriate decision on when he goes back in."

Fleury, who is recovering from his second concussion of the season, said he hasn't had any setbacks in his recovery, but there are still issues with his timing and ability to pick up pucks after being out for a couple of weeks.

Backup Matt Murray, who was injured himself in the Penguins' final regular-season game, did not take part in practice Tuesday. If Fleury cannot go in Game 1, it appears that Jeff Zatkoff will get the call.

But given what the Penguins have accomplished without Fleury, Malkin (who did not skate Tuesday), Olli Maatta (who is a game-time decision but is likely to play in Game 1) and others, maybe it just doesn't matter. In spite of the spate of injuries, the Penguins have won 14 of 16 games.

"We're not going to change how we play," Sullivan said. "This team has established an identity for itself and has played to their strengths for a long time. And I think there's a belief in the room that when we play a certain way we give our team the best chance to win. And so regardless of who we move in and out of the lineup, that will never change."

Under Sullivan, who took over for Mike Johnston after a slumbering start to the season, the Penguins have been the highest-scoring team in the NHL and have dominated Metropolitan Division opponents.

"We've been able to not beat ourselves," Maatta said. "That's really the mindset we want to have. We want to make sure, if we're going to lose that they have to beat us. We've been playing the full 60 minutes the last couple of months and we've been really good in that regard. It's just going to be that much tougher in the playoffs."

Even without Malkin, who went down because of an apparent shoulder injury with a month to go in the regular season, the Pens kept rolling. Nick Bonino filled in admirably with Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin, who has thrived since coming over in a midseason trade from Anaheim.

"We're doing a way better job defensively and also our understanding of when to be creative and when to play it safe," Hagelin said. "When I got here, we would be up 2-0 and then try stupid things on the offensive blue line and then it'd be 2-2 all of a sudden. I think we've done a better job of realizing where we're at in a game and what it takes to win games."

Former Penguin Colby Armstrong, who has found a nice niche as a broadcast analyst in the Pittsburgh area and in Canada, admits that he expected the Penguins to crack as they faced various challenges this season. It hasn't happened yet.

Armstrong said he felt earlier this season that this Penguins team wasn't necessarily built for the playoffs, but they have proven him wrong.

"Every step of the way I've been like, 'Oh we'll see how they react here,' and sure enough they've come out on top or reacted the right way," he said. "They're like a mosquito almost. They keep coming at you, you keep knocking them away, but they don't stop. They just keep coming and coming and coming.

"You see teams get frustrated playing against them. They're tenacious and they're a resilient group. It's been amazing to see how they've handled some tough opponents and some teams."

That brings us to Game 1. Because there are two off days between the opener and Game 2 on Saturday, both teams will be eager to win and avoid having to talk or think about a loss for two consecutive days.

Armstrong wondered how the Penguins might react to a loss, but then laughed and admitted that he probably wonders less now than in the past.

"They've got the right mentality, and complete buy-in," Armstrong said.