A new era begins as the Penguins open their first campaign in the sparkling new Consol Energy Center – with its bountiful amenities for fans and players alike. While the atmosphere will be an exciting one inside the arena, the Penguins want to make the visits miserable for their opponents.
In past seasons, opposing teams certainly didn’t circle games in Pittsburgh on their calendars as preferred destinations. The guys in black and gold or powdered blue played a big part in those dreaded stops here. So did Mellon Arena’s cramped visitors’ quarters. Don’t count out the fans, either, who are considered among the NHL’s most boisterous and supportive, and have been a factor.
Despite offering guests more friendly accommodations (Consol Energy Center’s visitor’s facilities are like upgrading to a Cadillac from a Yugo) , the Penguins still feature elite talent and a strong fan following, which filled Mellon Arena to capacity the past three seasons and will do so at the new arena for years to come.
The need to develop a home-ice advantage is important for the Penguins, who finished with the Eastern Conference’s fifth-best home record last year. So, racking up points at home is crucial.
“Everyone is real excited; it’s a great building and we want to make it ours,” forward Max Talbot said at the start of training camp. “It needs to be tough to come here and that’s something we need to create right now. It starts in practice with bringing the intensity every day and making sure everyone is crisp and into it. We’ll start creating our identity in preseason games and then carry it over to Oct. 7 (regular-season opener against the Flyers). We want to start off on the right foot and really make this building our home. We want to make it tough for other teams to come here, that’s for sure.”
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury agrees: “Everything is so nice about it. Everything is awesome. We are very fortunate to be here. I think making it our place is something the coaches talk about – right away we need to play the way we need to play. We have to go hard and play aggressive and make them know they are playing Pittsburgh and, just because they aren’t at Mellon Arena anymore, it’s not going to be any easier. We make it hard on them to play here.”
New Penguins defenseman Paul Martin went through a similar arena transition when he was with the New Jersey Devils. The team moved into the Prudential Center in 2007.
“It is a little awkward, at first, when you’re so used to playing in a certain building for so long. There is a grace period until you get comfortable,” he said. “When we started in Jersey, we were on the road for the first 13 games because it wasn’t done and that was pretty tough. As soon as you get in that first game and get the jitters out, it’ll be that much better.
“It’s mostly just a comfort thing. The more you come to a place, you know where you’re going, you know the people and everything like that. I think that is the biggest part. It shouldn’t make that big of a difference once you step on the ice and start playing.”
Mike “Doc” Emrick, who broadcasts for the Devils as well as NBC and Versus, expects there to be a transition period for the Penguins.
“It took the Devils a while for home to be ‘home,’” he said. “I don’t know if people should expect the Penguins to feel as comfortable in the first few games as they will be in November just because it’s a new place for them. But, it’s going to be a great arena and the fans will love it.
While the Penguins spent most of their training camp sorting out their lines and defensive pairings, they also looked for any advantages the new rink might offer – a funny bounce here, some stiff boards there, etc.
“There’s always something you have to get used to and find the little nuances of what’s going on out there, so it might take a bit,” Martin said.
Learning how the ice, boards and glass respond to action is especially important for the Penguins goaltenders, as any funny bounce could result in a scoring chance.
“Some rinks, I know if a guy misses the net, the puck is going to come back in front pretty quickly off the boards. Some other ones, the puck just stays there. Sometimes, when the puck is sent around the boards, it pops out to the net or deflects off the glass weird. That’s stuff I have to watch out for,” Fleury said. “Usually when we go to rinks (on the road), I’ll check out the boards and stuff in the morning practice just to be aware of it. When you’re playing at home all the time, it’ll get automatic.”
Talbot found one new advantage during training camp – the high-definition video board.
“At Mellon Arena, when you’d score a goal during a game, you’d wonder what happened because you couldn’t see the replay,” he said. “Now, one time during practice, I was in the corner and I looked up and saw my face on the Jumbotron and I was like, ‘Oh my, I need a tan or something.’”