Q: I guess it's not too early to talk about a familiar subject, with the second round approaching: What do the Pens do with Petr Sykora now? Maybe I missed something, but I didn't see anything from Pascal Dupuis on the second line and Miroslav Satan on the fourth line that would make Dan Bylsma stick with those two in lieu of Sykora. If he's hurt, fine, but if he's healthy, I'd like to get him back in there.
Chris, North Hills
MOLINARI: One thing that should be clear up front is that Dupuis' place in the lineup has nothing to do with whether Bylsma dresses Sykora. Dupuis has a job because of his defensive work and penalty-killing; he is a fourth-liner on this team, and his value should not be measured by what he does or does not accomplish when plugged into a space on one of the top two units.
Although Satan acquitted himself reasonably well during Games 5 and 6 in Round 1 -- especially for a guy who spent most of his playing time in a blue-collar role to which his game is not tailored -- the belief here is that Sykora should be back in his customary spot on Evgeni Malkin's right side when the second round begins. Assuming, of course, that Sykora doesn't have an injury that has played a significant part in his sub-par performance during the stretch drive and playoffs. (If he's hurt, and more than a few people think he is, it's not in anyone's interest to have him playing when there are capable replacements.) Sykora's status is an ongoing issue because, while his primary value is as a goal-scorer, he has just two in his last 21 games. That's a meager pace for a member of the checking line, let alone a 300-goal man who plays with one of the game's premier centers. Bylsma was patient with Sykora for weeks and certainly wouldn't have trouble justifying a decision to hold him out when Round 2 begins, especially when such slumps tend to be self-perpetuating as a struggling player loses confidence and begins to question his abilities.
However, the Penguins don't have a surplus of top-six forwards (that would be quite a luxury in the salary-cap era) and Sykora has the talent to contribute on one of the top two lines, so he should be given more time to play his way out of his slump. There's no guarantee he'll be able to, of course, but the payoff if he can justifies the gamble of continuing to play him when he's not producing.
Q: Hockey here is a religion. Obviously, during the playoffs, all we hear is hockey, hockey and more hockey. How does it compare to Pittsburgh?
Naimish Parikh, Montreal
MOLINARI: There are few, if any, major cities in the United St ates where the passion for hockey runs as deep as it seems to in places like Montreal. That doesn't mean fans in this country can't be as knowledgeable or committed as their counterparts in Canada; just that -- with absolutely no hard data to back up this observation -- the percentage of people residing in NHL cities who are devoted followers of their town's team is higher in Canada than the U.S.
Any number of factors could contribute to that. Certainly, a much higher percentage of people in Canada grew up playing the game, and there is no better way to develop a fan base than to introduce it to people when they are kids. Although youth hockey has experienced unbelievable growth in this country in recent decades, playing hockey has been a rite of childhood in much of Canada for generations.
Also, in five of the six Canadian NHL cities, hockey is the only major-league sport in town. (No, the Canadian Football League isn't being forgotten. Just ignored.) Toronto is the only one to have a franchise in more than one of the four big leagues. Conversely, a modest-sized city like Pittsburgh has teams in the NFL, NHL and major-league baseball, which results in media coverage that is diversified, rather than focused on one team. The same is true of fan interest.
With all of that established, Pittsburgh need not apologize to anyone for the support it gives the Penguins. The sellout streak at Mellon Arena is in triple-digits and TV ratings for Penguins games are consistently among the highest in the country. Perhaps most encouraging for the Penguins is that they seem to be the team of choice for young people in this area -- not that the Steelers are in any danger of dying from public neglect, of course -- and that, with a new arena on the way in little more than a year and a season-ticket waiting list of more than 2,500, any questions about the level of hockey interest in this region moved to the back burner long ago, and most likely will stay there forever.