Free agent Sykora looked around and found a lot to like about Penguins

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MONTREAL -- It's not that Petr Sykora has forgotten what it was like when he worked alongside Ales Hemsky in Edmonton last season.

Or how good things were when he played in New Jersey and joined Patrik Elias and Jason Arnott on the Devils' "A Line," one of the more celebrated units in recent NHL history.

But for all the accomplished linemates Sykora has had since breaking into the NHL in 1995, there's never been one with credentials rivaling those of Sidney Crosby, Sykora's center with the Penguins since training camp opened last week.

Fact is, when Sykora became an unrestricted free agent this summer, the Penguins' stable of outstanding young centers is what prompted him to put them high on his list of prospective employers.

"The No. 1 choice, when I looked around the league, was to either go back to Edmonton and play with Ales Hemsky or to go to Pittsburgh," Sykora said. "Sidney and [Evgeni Malkin] and [Jordan Staal], they're three of the best centers in this league. It was a no-brainer for me.

"Of course, I would love to play with Sidney. He's the best player in the league, and if you have a chance to play with the best player in the league ... I've been around the league. It's my 13th season, and I've never gotten a chance to play with a player like that for a whole season.

"I always got to play 20 games here, 30 games there. To actually have a chance to play a whole season with one of those players is a huge challenge for me."

Sykora and Crosby were together, with Mark Recchi on the left side, for the Penguins' 3-2 overtime loss to Montreal in their exhibition opener last night at the Bell Centre. Former Penguin Alex Kovalev got the winning goal during a three-on-three with 28.2 seconds left in overtime.

Sykora didn't crack the scoresheet, although he was manning the right point when Ryan Malone scored at 14:50 of the third period and fed a pass to Crosby to trigger the scoring sequence that forced overtime.

He also nearly got a goal on a power play with 50.4 seconds left in the opening period, when his rebound of a Sergei Gonchar shot seemed headed for the net until Canadiens goalie Cristobal Huet stretched and was able to stop the puck on the goal line with his stick blade.

Sykora, 30, has scored 247 goals in 764 regular-season NHL games, including a career-high 35 for the Devils in 2000-01. He usually has had a pretty good playmaker on his line and acknowledges that having a guy capable of getting him the puck is critical if he is to produce.

Knowing that someone such as Crosby or Malkin, the latter of whom he played with in the Russian Super League three years ago, was likely to be paired with him made the Penguins an almost irresistible draw.

"I looked at the lineup, and [the Penguins] are as deep with young centers as any team in the league, and I needed to play with a center like that," Sykora said.

Sykora is a mediocre skater, which is part of the reason he's not going to single-handedly beat most defenders, but his offensive instincts and ability to find open areas on the ice are excellent, which is why he should put up good numbers with Crosby feeding him the puck.

"I'm not a guy who's going to beat two guys, one-on-one, and score a goal," Sykora said. "I'm the guy who always finds a spot to get an open shot, and I have a good one-timer."

Although his talents dovetailed nicely with those of Hemsky -- "He's an unbelievable passer and skater, and we had a pretty good [chemistry] together," Sykora said -- his finest seasons came when he was with Arnott and Elias.

"They kept us together for four or five years," Sykora said. "When you have three guys who play together for that long, you get used to each other, you get the chemistry going. I think that at that time, it was the best line going."

If the Penguins are lucky, people eventually might be saying that about the line Sykora is on now, too.

NOTES -- Crosby also scored for the Penguins, while Andrei Kostsitsyn and Corey Locke got the other Montreal goals. ... Penguins right winger Georges Laraque bloodied Montreal's Andrew Archer in a first-period fight, inflicting unspecified facial injuries. ... Angelo Esposito was the only player in the Penguins' lineup with no NHL experience; six of Montreal's players have not played in the league. ... The Penguins and Canadiens will meet again at 7:38 p.m. today at the Bell Centre, where a capacity crowd of 21,273 turned out last night.

Dave Molinari can be reached at .


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