PITTSBURGH -- A year ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins had a healthy Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They also had an NHL championship to defend, and the realistic expectation they would play in the Stanley Cup Final for the third consecutive season.
The picture looks different as the 2010-11 season heads toward April, but in the end it might produce better results.
Despite missing the injured Crosby and Malkin, these reconfigured -- and, it might be argued, rejuvenated -- Penguins have the look and feel of a team that could make it difficult on any opponent in the playoffs. Especially if Crosby returns at some point from the concussion that has sidelined him since Jan. 5; he skated again Tuesday, but there remains no timetable for him to practice or play.
The Penguins already are making it difficult enough on the Philadelphia Flyers, who head into Tuesday night's showdown here at Consol Energy Center with a precarious two-point lead over both the Penguins and Capitals in the Eastern Conference race.
For the Flyers, it's a case of don't look now, somebody might be gaining on you -- and it might not be the team they expected.
Ten days ago, the Penguins trailed the Flyers by six points in the conference and Atlantic Division, and the deficit was eight points on Feb. 24. Yet the Penguins, motivated by all that speculation they couldn't possibly be the team they were before Crosby and Malkin were hurt, have won their last four -- all in shootouts -- as well as six of seven and eight of 10.
"I think we've been galvanized by some of the adversity we've had, some of the situations we've kind of been put in," coach Dan Bylsma said Tuesday. "It's forced our team to learn how to play and learn how to win a unique way, different from last year. We've learned different things about our team and had success different ways."
It's a contrast to the way they ended last season, when the Penguins looked lethargic down the stretch while going 6-5-3 in their final 14. They never regained that look of a champion in the postseason, and Montreal eliminated them in the second round.
"This team has gone a completely different route than last year's team," Bylsma said. "We've won big games at this time of the year and gotten results. ... We believe going into tonight's game, we believe going into the next game and going into the playoffs. We're confident we can be a good team and we think we can win games that way."
Jordan Staal, the Penguins' de facto No. 1 center with Crosby still working his way back from a concussion and Malkin out for the season with a knee injury, said the players have openly discussed trying to overtake the Flyers and carrying the momentum of such a comeback into the postseason.
"It's something that's definitely been on our minds," Staal said. "They're obviously a great team and we want to be right there with them and show them what we're made of. Hopefully, we'll see them in the playoffs."
The Flyers haven't exactly been faltering as the regular season winds down, getting points in nine of 10 games (5-1-4). Yet there seems to be a sense of worry among their fan base they might be letting first place slip away, that should they meet Pittsburgh -- or Washington -- in the playoffs, it might be without home-ice advantage.
Home ice and a top seeding often prove to be non-factors, but there's probably not a coach who wouldn't prefer to own both.
"If we get there, we know we're a good team that pushed to get there," Bylsma said. "The seeding is important. Home ice is something you'd like."
The Penguins have five games left after playing the Flyers, but only one at home. They meet Florida, Tampa Bay, the Islanders and Atlanta on the road and New Jersey at home. The Flyers finish up against Atlanta, the Rangers and Islanders at home and have New Jersey, Ottawa and Buffalo on the road.
"If we've lost (an edge), it needs to come back ASAP," Flyers forward Scott Hartnell said. "The playoffs are right ahead of us. We want to finish as high as we can in the standings. It's our biggest game of the year. We need to get back to having some fun and scoring some goals."
Perhaps playing Pittsburgh will be what the Flyers need to stop looking behind them and get back to looking ahead. The Flyers won their previous two games in Consol Energy Center, including the first game there Oct. 7, but they last played there exactly five months ago.
"It's a pretty big deal," forward Daniel Carcillo said. "It's the biggest game of the season."