If the Penguins could find a magic mirror, one that let them see themselves three or four or five years in the future, they might gaze at an image that looks something like the current Buffalo Sabres.
If they're lucky, anyway.
The Sabres, who play host to the Penguins tonight, lead the NHL with 31 points. They are a Stanley Cup contender after coming off of a season in which they won two playoff series before losing to eventual champion Carolina.
Before that, Buffalo missed the playoffs for three consecutive seasons after being ousted by the Penguins in the 2001 Eastern Conference semifinals.
The Penguins, who finished second-to-last in the NHL last season, are attempting to build the same way Buffalo did -- by bringing along a group of young players aided by a few solid veterans.
"If you're looking at the two teams, we're young and we suffered the past year, but we're starting to be a team that will compete more game in and game out and is looking to be part of the group that makes the playoffs this year," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said yesterday after practice at Mellon Arena.
"You look at Buffalo, they missed the playoffs for many years, and they were young. You look at the two scenarios, and they look alike. This is a good example for us to concentrate on -- having stability with our players. We know we like our young kids. Buffalo stuck with their young guys, and it paid off."
The Sabres are far enough along in the process that many of their key players are in their mid- to late 20s and have been with the organization for several seasons if not their whole career.
Seven of their top 10 scorers are between 22 and 29. Their top eight scorers -- led by center Daniel Briere and winger Thomas Vanek -- average 26.4 years of age and are in at least their third season with Buffalo and/or were drafted by the Sabres.
"They started at the bottom and they've been growing together, and that's the kind of thing we're doing right now," said Penguins winger Michel Ouellet. "It's good for us to look at it like that."
Of course, the Sabres haven't just hung on to players; they have hung on to the kind of talent that has given them depth -- 10 players have at least one winning goal -- and speed.
Those attributes are especially valuable since the NHL introduced a new approach to rules and enforcement last season that favors offense and skill.
"They have 12 really good forwards and a lot of speed, so they draw penalties and skate well," Penguins defenseman Ryan Whitney said of the Sabres. "That's what the game's all about now."
The Penguins, at least on paper, look like a younger version of Buffalo.
They have key players who are 18 (forward Jordan Staal), 19 (center Sidney Crosby), 20 (forward Evgeni Malkin) and 21 (goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. All four were drafted in the first round by the Penguins.
Six other current regulars -- forwards Ouellet, Colby Armstrong, Maxime Talbot and Chris Thorburn, and defensemen Whitney and Noah Welch -- are younger than 25, and all but Thorburn were drafted by the Penguins.
But whereas the Penguins were relieved to break a five-game losing streak Monday with a 3-2 victory against Philadelphia, Buffalo players were talking about their frustration after a 4-2 loss to Carolina Wednesday. It was just the Sabres' second loss in regulation.
"I don't think anybody's sympathetic to them," Whitney said.
"They're playing great. Hopefully, we can come in and give them their third [regulation loss]."
And, perhaps in a few years, be the team everyone else is trying to knock off.
Matchup: Penguins at Buffalo Sabres, 8:08 p.m. today, HSBC Arena, Buffalo, N.Y.
TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WXDX-FM (105.9).
Probable goaltenders: Jocelyn Thibault for Penguins, Martin Biron for Sabres.
Penguins: Were swept in four games with two OT losses vs. Sabres last season. ... Thibault is 5-9-6 with 3.03 goals-against average vs. Buffalo. ... No Penguin has had a hat trick vs. Sabres since Mario Lemieux Feb. 14, 1989.
Sabres: Are 3-0-2 vs. Atlantic Division with 28-12 goal edge. ... Daniel Briere has six-game scoring streak (5 goals, 6 assists) and Thomas Vanek has five-game scoring streak (5 goals, 2 assists). ... Are in midst of playing 10 games in 17 nights.
Hidden stat: The previous shutout in the series was a 0-0 game Jan. 21, 2003 with Biron and former Penguin Sebastien Caron in goal.
Shelly Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1721.