On the Penguins: A lion in another winter

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It seems a stretch to suggest that Eric Tangradi might have been born a bit early. • After all, the guy still is two weeks shy of his 24th birthday, so his pro career is much closer to its formative stages than its final ones. • Still, even though the career path Tangradi elected to follow led him to his desired destination, the NHL, at a fairly young age, he might have been tempted to take another if the option had been there.

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Had Penn State's hockey program, which is in its first year of Division I play, been competing at that level when Tangradi was making career-related decisions as a teenager in Philadelphia, he might have chosen to play for the Nittany Lions rather than going to the Ontario Hockey League.

"Being a Philadelphia kid growing up, you don't really find out too much about Division I hockey until you turn 15 or 16 years old," he said.

"If there was a program at Penn State, being a hockey fan, I'm sure I would have seen multiple games before I even turned 15.

"It definitely would have been an option of mine and may have lured me from going to play junior."

Tangradi, who said he likely would have majored in engineering had he attended Penn State, has some ties to the school.

His girlfriend is an alumna and won a national championship with the women's volleyball team.

"I was able to walk the campus and see [what it is like] there," he said. "It's a really unbelievable school and an unbelievable campus. Athletics and education are incredible there."

Coach Guy Gadowsky's program remains a work-in-progress and will be pitted against traditional powers such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Michigan when Big Ten conference begins play next winter.

Still, Tangradi is one of many who feel Penn State can be competitive against even elite opponents if it can corner the market on talent coming out of Western Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia area.

And he figures that the Pegula Ice Arena, which is to open next season, will help to attract some of those players.

"The record Pennsylvania's had with [in-state] players of late, if they can get half of those guys to go there, they'll be in good shape," Tangradi said.

"No matter what, in three or four years, I think they'll be a top-10-in-the-nation sort of team. Once the players and students start seeing the facilities and amenities they have there -- the new rink going up -- I think they'll be able to attract a lot of talent."

It gets late early

Tomas Vokoun can't speak from personal experience about how things played out during the NHL's lockout-shortened season in 1995, when a labor dispute limited the league to a 48-game schedule.

He was, after all, still laboring in his native Czech Republic the previous time a labor dispute kept the league shuttered until mid-January.

But he has been around long enough to appreciate that it's important, maybe imperative, to accumulate points early, especially when there are so few games being played.

"It's not going to be one of those seasons where you can say, after 20 games, 'OK, let's kick it into gear now,' " he said. "It's going to be too tough.

"I've been on teams where we were chasing teams in the playoffs hunt and it hardly ever works out. Every game matters so much down the stretch, and there are a lot of three-point games.

"It's hard to catch up, especially when you have to jump two or three teams."

The week ahead

Today: at Ottawa ... Evgeni Malkin and Senators defenseman Sergei Gonchar, pictured at left, will be on the ice together for the first time since being with Magnitogorsk in the Kontinental Hockey League during the NHL lockout.

Tuesday: vs. New York Islanders ... Sidney Crosby has put up 66 points, matching his most against any opponent, in 36 career games against the Islanders.

Thursday: at New York Rangers ... The Penguins, who earned a 6-3 victory in Manhattan a week ago, have won at least twice at the Garden in four of the past six seasons.

Saturday: vs. New Jersey ... Devils goalie Martin Brodeur has shut out the Penguins nine times, one shy of Bernie Parent's record for an opponent.



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