PITTSBURGH (AP) Despite the Pittsburgh Penguins entering the playoffs as underdogs for the first time in several seasons, captain Sidney Crosby still has high hopes.
After struggling down the stretch, Pittsburgh clinched its ninth straight playoff berth with a 2-0 win against the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night.
Yet rather than home-ice advantage and the role of heavy favorites, the Penguins will meet the New York Rangers on Thursday night in a playoff rematch that some think looks like a mismatch.
Pittsburgh let a 3-1 lead over New York in the Eastern Conference semifinals evaporate last spring.
The collapse led to sweeping changes in the organization, though Crosby remains confident even while taking on the deeper, more experienced and nearly unflappable Presidents' Trophy-winning Rangers.
If there's anything positive to be taken from Pittsburgh's 3-5-2 struggle to the finish line, it's that they were forced to keep their intensity level up rather than just sit around after clinching waiting for the postseason to start.
''It doesn't feel like we were just able to coast in and count the games down,'' Crosby said. ''Usually, at different points, I feel like we were just trying to stay healthy and avoid injuries at that point, and I think this year was a little different.
''We had to fight and we were missing a lot of guys, things like that. It's definitely a different feeling going in, but not necessarily a bad thing. It feels like for the last week and a half, we've already been in the playoffs.''
While each team is significantly different than they were a year ago, Crosby said there are a few key areas the Penguins could clean up in order to avoid allowing another series lead, if they are able to establish one, to slip away.
''All the games seemed pretty similar. The margin for error was pretty small,'' Crosby said. ''You talk about the playoffs, and one mistake here or there is a pretty big difference.
''But it seemed like, as the series went on, they were able to get a little bit more momentum, extended shifts, stuff like that . You don't want to give them a lot of opportunities and get back on your heels.''
The Penguins, once known for their potent offense, are now a more defensive unit. That has been hindered in recent weeks due to injuries to key defensemen Kris Letang (concussion) and Christian Ehrhoff (upper body), as well as rookie defenseman Derrick Pouliot (upper body).
Pittsburgh coach Mike Johnston did not provide injury updates Monday.
With those three shelved, Pittsburgh played with five defensemen through two stints late in the season. The Pens will not face that challenge when the playoffs start, as they were able to recall Scott Harrington and Brian Dumoulin from the AHL's Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
''They'll figure out (what to expect in the playoffs) over the next couple of days,'' defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. ''(Having a full complement of defensemen) makes a big difference. Some guys are efficient enough, good enough, to play 27 minutes a night. That's never been my role. I feel that I can bring my best hockey playing 18, 19, 20 minutes a night. I can give everything I have. When you're playing five D, that's more difficult.''