Sterling makes case as Penguins beat Red Wings, 5-1


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Exhibition-game memories usually have the staying power of a puff of steam.

The results do not affect the standings and many of the participants are working elsewhere in a matter of days, so it can be tough for anyone who is not competing for a roster spot or playing time to take them seriously.

Of course, the Penguins' 5-1 victory against Detroit in the exhibition opener for both teams Wednesday night at the Consol Energy Center might be an exception.

Many in the sellout crowd of 18,087 will remember it because it was the first hockey game in the building, even though the first one that will be reflected in the standings still is two weeks away.

Ryan Craig, fighting for a job on the NHL roster, likely will not forget it because he scored the Penguins' second and fifth goals, something management surely did not overlook.

And winger Brett Sterling, also is competing for a spot with the major league club, might remember it more than anyone because he was honored as the No. 1 star of the game the first time he pulled on a Penguins sweater.

Sterling, who played on Sidney Crosby's left side until Crosby left the game with a sore hip, converted one of Crosby's set-ups for a tap-in goal during the second period to give the Penguins a 4-1 lead.

That was an hour or so after he had claimed a footnote, however tiny, in franchise history.

Sterling earned an assist on Mike Comrie's goal 81 seconds into the game, grabbing a permanent place in Penguins lore for the part he played in the first goal scored in the city's new arena.

But it is Sterling's ability to score goals, not set them up, that prompted the Penguins to sign him as a free agent this summer.

Meager goal-scoring from the wings has been an issue with them for several years -- it is the reason they plan to move center Jordan Staal from the third line to the second, and bump center Evgeni Malkin to the wing -- and Sterling's skills set suggests he is a legitimate candidate to address that need.

Although he recorded just two goals in 19 career appearances with the Atlanta Thrashers, Sterling scored 109 in 199 games with the Thrashers' American Hockey League affiliate in Chicago.

So, while the landscape of pro hockey is littered with guys who were big-time point-producers in the minors but could not produce at the next level, Sterling has a track record that suggests he is worthy of a serious look.

"Sterling is a guy who scores goals," coach Dan Bylsma said.

He got a couple in four minutes during a training-camp scrimmage Monday, and they underscored two diverse elements of his game. One came on a shot from the left circle, the other on a rebound from close range.

The details of the latter are particularly significant because Sterling is 5 feet 7, 175 pounds or roughly the size of one of Zdeno Chara's legs. Players of such stature sometimes are reluctant to venture into high-impact areas -- presumably, that reflects a strong survival instinct -- but so far, Sterling has not been shy about entering them.

"He said himself, he scores on the shot [from the circle] but he also scores a lot like the second goal in the scrimmage," Bylsma said.

"Standing right in the blue paint and big guys all around him, and he puts it in the goal.

"No one cared how big he was when he was standing right there and scoring that goal. That's a challenge. It's a challenge at 5-10 or that size. It's also a challenge for [Eric] Tangradi at 6-2."

Sterling, 26, and Tangradi, 21, both are trying to convince management to keep them around for the regular-season opener Oct. 7 against Philadelphia.

Sterling, as an unrestricted free agent, might have been able to chart a more certain course to the NHL than the one he is moving down now, but said that it is in his long-term interest to be part of an organization with the kind of elite talents that make up the Penguins' nucleus.

"When you do get the call-up, you're playing with some of the best players in the league," he said. "You want to complement yourself the best you can, and why not do it that way?

"If you go to a team that isn't a Cup contender, that's struggling to win a game, you might not do that well. Your team's not going to do well, and that's going to reflect on you."


Dave Molinari: dmolinari@post-gazette.com . First Published September 23, 2010 4:00 AM


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