5 Dave Molinari's talking points

There is a handful of situations that will determine the success (or failure) of the Penguins in the 2007-08 season

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1, ENCORE, ENCORE ... BUT HOW?

What's left for Sidney Crosby to accomplish, at least on an individual basis? Win a Vezina, as the NHL's top goaltender? How about a Pulitzer, or an Oscar? Maybe a Nobel Peace Prize.

Crosby, at the advanced age of 20, already owns an MVP and a scoring championship, as well as almost universal recognition as the finest player in the world.

Do not, however, expect Crosby to even consider settling for what he has accomplished to date. Being the best isn't nearly good enough for him, as evidenced by the way he approaches workouts -- even the ones in mid-summer -- with the kind of intensity most players would like to take into a playoff Game 7.

Although taking over the captaincy adds a facet to Crosby's job description, he isn't going to collapse under the weight of the "C" stitched onto his sweater and he isn't going to change the way he goes about his work. There really isn't any need for that when the guy already is going all-out on every shift.

2. NO, I DON'T NEED A DOCTOR

Crosby is the Penguins' most important player and plays a major role in almost everything they accomplish.

There are exceptions, though, and Crosby will just have to accept that. At least unless he can earn a medical degree through correspondence courses before the opener Friday. (Not that anyone should bet against him pulling it off if he sets his mind to it.)

For while individuals such as Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Ryan Whitney, Sergei Gonchar and Marc-Andre Fleury had an awful lot to do with the Penguins' successes in 2006-07, Lady Luck -- and its medical staff -- deserved some of the credit, too.

The Penguins lost just 216 man-games to injuries and illness, and 63 of those were due to little-used defenseman Eric Cairns' concussion-related problems. That means the Penguins had the bulk of their lineup intact much of the time, a huge advantage against opponents with a third of their roster on injured reserve.

More important, most of the Penguins' core players were healthy most of the time. Gonchar and Mark Recchi dressed for all 82 games, while Ryan Whitney and Jordan Staal missed one each (not because of injury), Crosby sat out three and Evgeni Malkin missed four.

Having so many key guys stay healthy would go a long way toward helping the Penguins repeat their successes of a year ago.

3. IS HOCKEY BETTER THE SECOND TIME AROUND?

Not many people were surprised when Malkin was named the top rookie in the NHL last season. After all, he came to North America with an excellent pedigree and had proven himself against elite talent in the Olympics and world junior championships.

Staal, however, wasn't supposed to stick in the NHL, let alone be a rookie of the year finalist at age 18. Nonetheless, he gave management no option but to keep him, and quickly established himself as a solid two-way forward and quality penalty-killer.

The question for both now is whether they'll continue to move forward or regress during their second seasons in the league. There's plenty of precedent for the latter; if not, the phrase "sophomore jinx" wouldn't be in the lexicon of big-time sports.

Staal, though, is pretty much unflappable, and Malkin seems far more at home in North America than he did a year ago. If he really has settled in and regularly performs at the level he reached throughout the preseason, opponents might not want to waste time and energy checking him and focus instead on trying to get him deported.

4. MARC OF A WINNER

Marc-Andre Fleury usually managed to smile on the most dismal days early in his pro career, so it should surprise no one that he beamed for much of last winter, when he earned 40 victories and established himself as a solid NHL goaltender.

What he hasn't proven yet is that he's a goalie with whom a team can win a championship, if only because that opportunity hasn't presented itself. There's an outside chance it could happen in 2007-08, although only if Fleury is able to consistently elevate his game the way he did at various times last season.

He's far more fundamentally sound than he was earlier in his career and is starting to grasp the finer points of playing his position. Should he gain the confidence that comes from winning a playoff round or two, Fleury could become the kind of goaltender of whom opponents want no part.

If Fleury stays injury-free, the Penguins might never find out how much of a gamble they took by signing unproven Dany Sabourin to be his backup.

5. OF WINGS AND PRAYERS

The Penguins found a 29-goal scorer to play on Crosby's left side yesterday. Too bad for them it was Staal, who they had hoped to keep in his natural position of center.

The Penguins, though, have to get reliable production from the wingers on their top two lines. That is why Staal was grafted onto Crosby's left wing yesterday, and why they signed Petr Sykora as a free agent in July to play on his right. If Sykora plays a full season on Crosby's wing and doesn't score at least 30 times, he will qualify as a major disappointment.

While the Penguins obviously do not have a game-breaker on the wing, they do have some proven scorers. Recchi, for instance, has gotten between 24 and 28 in each of his past three seasons, and Gary Roberts generally is good for 20 or so.

One guy worth watching is Erik Christensen, who shifted back to center yesterday but figures to turn up on the wing again at some point. Christensen can skate and shoot well enough to score 20-plus at this level and if he does that, it will add some badly needed diversity to the Penguins' offense.

Finally, even if none of the wingers can score as much as the coaches would like, perhaps one or two could win a faceoff now and then. After all, the Penguins don't have many centers who can.Dave Molinari's



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