A crowning night for Penguins

Victory gives them division title, sellout for entire season at Arena

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Hockey players know when they're surrounded by, shall we say, less informed fans.

They're the ones who cheer wildly for goals and fights, and frequently yell, "Shoot the puck!"

"They understand the game here," Penguins forward Jordan Staal said yesterday. "They might yell 'Shoot!' some, but I think they all understand that the smaller plays make all the difference, and that's what good fans are all about."

Penguins' fans are not only knowledgeable, they are many. They have flocked to Mellon Arena in large numbers this season.

The team's final regular-season home game last night, against the rival Philadelphia Flyers -- a 4-2, division-clinching victory -- drew a crowd of 17,132 and marked the first time the Penguins have sold out every game in a season. Most of the 41 crowds have included standing-room patrons, with the average attendance going into last night at 17,075 in the 16,940-seat building.

The club-record sellout streak for regular-season games stands at 54, which includes the last 13 home games of 2006-07.

Not even the Stanley Cup champion teams of 1990-91 and 1991-92 led by Hall of Fame center Mario Lemieux -- now a team owner -- sold out every game. The previous record for consecutive sellouts was 30 over two seasons, 1988-89 and 1989-90, and the previous high for sellouts in one season was 34, in 1988-89.

"It says a lot about the fans in Pittsburgh and how they've embraced this particular hockey team," Penguins president David Morehouse said. "I think there's a deeper story there about this relationship between the fans and the team, and the team and the fans."

It's a story rooted in the glory years of Mr. Lemieux and right winger Jaromir Jagr and defenseman Paul Coffey and goaltender Tom Barrasso and so many role players, several of them still living and working in this area.

But the updated version of the story features an outpouring of affection for center Sidney Crosby, who came to the Penguins as an 18-year-old in 2005-06 and has been the face not only of the Penguins but also of the National Hockey League and the sport worldwide. He won the league scoring title and MVP award last season.

And for shy Russian forward Evgeni Malkin, who is chasing this season's scoring title, and a bench full of others.

"It's a whole different level," Mr. Morehouse said. "Part of it is the character of this team, not only the talent but the players themselves, the character they have, but it's also the emergence of hockey in Western Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh's turned into a hockey town."

Pat Egros Jr., a National Guardsman and a season ticket holder in section C-22 with his father, Pat, 50, a Rostraver Township commissioner, would agree.

"The city is really close to this group of players," said the younger Egros, 27. "They've got a young core of players that will be here for a while and they city is backing them 100 percent."

What Mr. Morehouse calls "The Mario Effect" saw the number of local ice rinks grow from six 20 years ago to 43 now, the number of high school hockey players grow from 600 to 3,000; and the number of amateur players from 1,000 to 4,000. Five players with local roots are in the NHL, and many more are playing in or headed for an NCAA Division I college team.

Still, things dipped some between eras. When Penguins Coach Michel Therrien was hired in December 2006, he saw something far different at home games than he saw at his first NHL coaching stop in hockey mecca Montreal.

"I was here two years ago when there were 8,000, 9,000 people in the stands in the middle of the season," Mr. Therrien said. "You saw almost at the end of last year, the transition with our club.

"This year the fan support has been phenomenal. Players like to play when fans are excited. It adds emotion. What a tribute for the fans, to sell out every game."

Mr. Morehouse was a young hockey rooter when the Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cups. This incarnation of the team, young and confident, has aspirations of bringing the huge silver chalice back.

"There's probably a sense -- I know I had it as a Penguins fan -- that we got to witness history with Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr and Paul Coffey. And a lot of us thought, this will never happen again. And now here we go, lightning strikes twice."

It was just a little over a year ago that the team's future in Pittsburgh became secure. That's when a deal was struck for a new arena, slated to open across the street from Mellon Arena at the start of the 2010-11 season.

That's also when the Penguins were surging, about to complete a 47-point improvement over 2005-06, and fans began regularly filling the stands, content in the knowledge that their hearts would not be broken by the team being sold and moved.

"People know that this ownership, like the Rooneys [who own the Steelers], cares deeply about the city of Pittsburgh," Mr. Morehouse said of Mr. Lemieux, California billionaire Ron Burkle and their ownership group.

"We were on the verge of having to leave the city, and everyone knows the best financial decision would have been for us to leave. We stayed here because we like Pittsburgh and we're Pittsburgh fans."

Mr. Morehouse pointed out that it's not just attendance that acts as a barometer for interest in the Penguins.

For the second season, the Penguins' television ratings on FSN Pittsburgh are the highest of any local FSN affiliate for its NHL club, and the team was selected for the maximum 12 national telecasts, four by NBC and 8 on cable network Versus.

"This is a special group of players, and this is a special town, and there's just a bond that exists that hasn't existed in the past," said Mr. Morehouse, who watches some games from a suite but other times sits in the stands to absorb the atmosphere.

"When our fourth line cycles the puck for a minute and a half, that gets an ovation -- not just a spectacular goal. And in this building, when it's close and the chips are down, you know that these players -- starting with Sidney Crosby -- are going to do what they can to win."

Even before the Penguins clinched a spot in the playoffs that start next week, there was a waiting list of more than 1,300 for season tickets for next season. Suites at Mellon Arena were sold out this season and are again for 2008-09.

Mr. Staal, a Canadian who was an 18-year-old rookie last season, wasn't sure what to expect from Pittsburgh.

"Last year, when I came here, maybe not right at the start, but once we started to get some wins, you could really feel the atmosphere and the spark in the city," Mr. Staal said. "It's a real hockey town. They really love their Penguins. Everybody loves playing in front of a sold-out crowd."

Shelly Anderson can be reached at shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.


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