Penguins' bar rises

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One hundred three days after they skated off the Mellon Arena ice -- a loser to the Detroit Red Wings in six games of the Stanley Cup final but a winner on all other counts -- the Penguins officially reconvened in Pittsburgh yesterday.

It was a short off-season, but no one was complaining.

"That's a good problem to have," said Sidney Crosby, who by turning 21 over the summer officially is no longer Sid the Kid. Of course, even when he was a teenager, Crosby always was The Man for the Penguins.

The team reported for physicals on the South Side in the morning. Blood was drawn, tests were run, bodies were examined. Later in the day, some of the players participated in an optional skate at Mellon Arena. The first practice is this morning; the first exhibition game in four days; the first regular-season game in 18.

The shortness of the preparation period is stunning compared to the NFL and MLB. On this count, the NHL, which often trails the other sports in how it operates, is well out in front. Those leagues would be wise to take a look at how NHL teams prepare for a season and learn from it.

There was good feeling all around as the players met and later stood for interviews. Even losing teams enjoy getting together for the first time after an offseason. Winning teams savor it more. Not only do they remember the good times, they look forward to even better ones.

And so it is with the young Penguins. There are grand expectations for them. Since they reached the Stanley Cup final last season, anything less this season will be a disappointment. Even the team's fans, the most forgiving in this town, might show a touch of anger if the team does not at least duplicate the wondrous ride of last season.

The expectations are well placed. Despite losing top forwards Ryan Malone and Marian Hossa, the Penguins look to be the class of the Eastern Conference. This is the first time there has been such expectations for this group. They came out of nowhere two seasons ago to make the playoffs. The conventional wisdom going into last season was that, although this was a supremely talented team, it might take a step backward before it became a legitimate Cup contender. Few expected the team to do as well as it did.

Such expectations can be daunting, even for talented teams. But the Penguins, although young, seem to have the kind of leadership and dedication that won't falter in the face of these expectations.

In any case, repeating will be difficult. It always is, and it will be determined by an 82-game schedule, not preseason conjecture.

Much has happened in the almost 15 weeks since the Red Wings dashed the hopes of a team and its fans with a 3-2 victory. Malone and Hossa are gone, and the biggest offseason moves were not in attracting new players but in locking up much of the team's core.

There was doses of unbridled optimism, which is as it should be this time of the year.

Defenseman Ryan Whitney, a month removed from foot surgery that will keep him out for three months and possibly longer, gushed over second-year player Kris Letang, who likely will inherit many of his responsibilities.

"Looking at him last year, he was ready," said Whitney. "Seeing him now, it's even more so. He's made the big jump. He looked fantastic when they were skating. I see no surprise in him making a huge step and having a great year."

As always, Crosby set the tone.

One of the major decisions that will come out of this preseason is what coach Michel Therrien will do with third-year center Jordan Staal. He is a superior defensive player and could anchor an excellent checking line. But he also is gifted offensively and, with the team light at wing, could play there beside Evgeni Malkin.

"It's a win-win situation for us no matter where he plays," said Crosby. "If he's on the wing, he complements Geno [Malkin] great. If not, then he's playing center. He's a great centerman and a tough guy to play on both sides of the puck. We can't lose in that situation."

Crosby dispassionately discussed the departure of Hossa, who, after leading people to believe he planned to sign a long-term deal with the Penguins, outraged fans by signing with Detroit.

Asked if he had attempted to persuade Hossa to stay, Crosby said, "I didn't have to persuade him. I saw him before free agency started [July 1] and he was pretty sure he was coming back. It didn't work out that way.

"Honestly, it's behind us. It's over and done with. It has been put behind us, and we're moving on."

It's an exciting time in Pittsburgh sports. The Steelers will have to share the headlines and the TV sports minutes with the Penguins. The town has two championship contenders. It has been a long time since we could say that.


Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com .


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