Penguins: Pieces in place for another Stanley Cup run


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The 2010-11 NHL season begins today and, for at least a little while, all 30 teams have a few things in common.

Each is sure it possesses a lineup stocked with players who are going to perform at -- maybe even above -- their potential, and every last one is going to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

That will change soon enough, of course. Reality will hit some clubs like a Niklas Kronwall check, and it will become obvious that they won't compete for anything more than a lottery pick in the entry draft.

But it's safe to assume that won't be the case for the Penguins and Philadelphia, who will play the first regular-season game at 7:08 p.m. today at Consol Energy Center.

The Flyers came within two victories of winning the Stanley Cup a few months ago, even though they needed a shootout in the final regular-season game to get into the playoffs, and are widely regarded as a legitimate threat to challenge for a championship.

So are the Penguins, whose defense of the Cup they won in 2009 was aborted by a seven-game loss to Montreal in the second round of the playoffs, but whose core of exceptional young talent remains intact and whose supporting cast has been, by most reckoning, upgraded from last season.


Today

Game: Flyers at Penguins, 7:08 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.

TV, radio: Versus, WXDX-FM (105.9).

Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Brian Boucher for Flyers.

Penguins: Went 5-1 during preseason. ... C Sidney Crosby has 24 goals, 32 assists in 32 regular-season games against Flyers. ... Won season series, 5-1, in 2009-10.

Flyers: Reached Stanley Cup final after qualifying for playoffs in shootout on final day of regular season. ... C Jeff Carter had six goals in five games against Penguins last season. ... Are 3-11 in past 14 games in Pittsburgh.

Of note: Penguins are 3-1 in past four home openers after losing previous four.


"I like everything about this team," center Max Talbot said Wednesday.

Talbot, mind you, is an incurable optimist -- the kind of guy who could have been caught in the Great Flood and concluded it presented a perfect opportunity to work on his boating skills -- but his sentiment seems to be rooted in reality.

The Penguins' nucleus includes world-class forwards such as Sidney Crosby, who tied for the NHL goal-scoring lead last season and who regularly ranks among its most prolific point-producers, and Evgeni Malkin, who seems to have made a seamless transition from center to wing.

Mix in goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who rebounded from a disappointing playoff performance with a strong preseason and a defense corps that has gotten deeper and more balanced with the addition of Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin, and the components needed to be a contender look to be in place.

"It's tough to say right now, because we haven't played a regular game all together," Fleury said. "But from what we've seen in the preseason, I think it's good."

The Penguins went 5-1 in exhibition play, a record that, however, gaudy, translates to exactly zero points in the standings.

Nonetheless, the Penguins have done some things the past three weeks that should serve them well now that the games are going to count. There has been a renewed emphasis on doing the little things well, on making a team-wide commitment to preventing goals as well as producing them.

"When we don't have the puck, all five guys will be playing defense," coach Dan Bylsma said.

The Penguins had the NHL's fifth-most prolific offense in 2009-10, putting up an average of 3.04 goals per game, but they also allowed an average of 2.87, good for only 20th place in the league rankings.

Cutting down on the number of goals they allow will be a priority in coming months.

Left winger Matt Cookie said he expects the Penguins to be "a lot more system-oriented," and Bylsma said his players have been receptive to the idea of channeling more effort into their defensive duties.

"I like our mentality," he said. "I like the way guys came to training camp. I like the way we've worked. I've liked the attention to detail. And I like our mindset as a group, going into this season."

One area of emphasis has been moving the puck out of the defensive zone as quickly as possible.

"I think you're going to see our team get out of our end a lot easier and a lot faster and a lot more efficiently than we did in the past," Cooke said.

Upgrading the Penguins' play in their end isn't Bylsma's only concern, of course. He noted that special teams are a constant concern -- the Penguins' underachieving power play had a conversion rate of just 17.2 percent last season -- and said he hopes to see improvement on faceoffs, too.

The Penguins failed to break even on draws last season, controlling just 49.3, and Bylsma cited their faceoff struggles while killing penalties in the playoffs as a particular concern.

"That's an important thing we need to get better at," he said.

Despite those warts and flaws and soft spots, the Penguins look like a group whose membership among the league's elite clubs has been renewed.

"I'm really confident about this team," Talbot said.

At the moment, it's hard to say why he shouldn't be.


For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Dave Molinari: dmolinari@post-gazette.com .


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