This time last year, the Pittsburgh Penguins were skating into the playoffs mostly rested, mostly healthy and mostly expected to win. On Thursday morning, Sidney Crosby faced the current reality: a battle up to the final day of the season, a gaping hole in the defense thanks to injuries to Christian Ehrhoff and Derrick Pouliot, and the expectation that this series is the Rangers' to lose.
But a player doesn't amass 84 points in a season without knowing how to look for opportunities, and Crosby, who had 28 goals, sees plenty of those in this series against the Rangers.
"We kind of coasted in last year," he said after the morning skate at Madison Square Garden. "This year, we came in fighting pretty hard . . . I think that's something that will hopefully help us. We've been playing playoff hockey for a bit now, hopefully, that will allow us to have a good start here."
That pseudo-playoff run hasn't been particularly successful, however.
The Penguins entered Thursday night's game after losing five of their last six regular-season games. They managed to squeak in past the Bruins thanks to a win against the last-place Buffalo Sabres on the last day of the regular season. They've played without defensemen Olli Maatta (since December) and Kris Letang (since March) and swooned badly in the final two months of the regular season.
Crosby's counter to all that? That was then. This is now.
"I think once you get into the playoffs, it doesn't really matter what your seed is -- who's the underdog, who's not," said Crosby, who was kept off the scoreboard last night in the Rangers' 2-1 win in the series opener. "And I think the expectations for us, even though they may not be as high from the outside, in here, we want to move on . . . I don't think we really get caught up either way in that."
He does have experience on his side, this being the eighth season he and the Penguins have made it to the playoffs together. Crosby had 31 points -- 15 goals and 16 assists -- in the Penguins' 2009 Stanley Cup championship run. He was less successful last year, managing one goal and eight assists in 13 games. He scored that goal and had two assists in the seven-game conference semifinal series against the Rangers.
The Penguins entered that series a favorite before the Rangers crawled out of a 3-1 hole to oust them. The teams enter this series as mirror images of their previous selves, and no doubt Crosby is looking for a little karmic payback for the Penguins' shortened 2014 campaign.
"I've been on both sides of it," he said. "I don't think it changes your approach that much . . . There's always expectations, whether it's us or the Rangers, whoever you are. This is the time of year you want to be playing. You work hard to get here. Once you're here, a lot of the work has been put in. You shouldn't have to change too much, but everybody wants to elevate their game and find a way to keep playing."
The odds aren't much in the Penguins' favor, but if you ask Crosby, they can find a way.