Penguins study the lay of the new rink at Consol Energy Center

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It didn't take Penguins coach Dan Bylsma long to realize that not everything about the luxurious Consol Energy Center suited him.

At the first home preseason game, he looked up from the bench and saw an image of himself on the huge video board so clear that he thought, "I'm going to have to worry about my hair more."

Idiosyncrasies aside, the Penguins have given mostly two gloved-thumbs up as they adjust to their new home, which they will officially be christened Thursday night in their regular-season opener against Philadelphia.

The amenity-rich player complex is many times the size of what they had across the street at Mellon/Civic Arena and is custom designed.

On the rink, they are finding that passes off of the glass seem to bounce true, and that the boards have some tendencies that they can learn and use to their advantage.

The one thing that needs some work is the quality of the ice, although the players' criticism has been offered almost sheepishly in light of their overall appreciation for the building.

"It's kind of sticky, kind of slow," winger Chris Kunitz said of the ice. "It will be broken in, and it will be fine."

Team captain Sidney Crosby, a connoisseur of all things hockey, knows what the arena workers are going through in attempting to produce a good sheet of ice.

"They're trying to find that magic formula with the temperature and everything," Crosby said.

He's exactly right, said Jay Roberts, general manager of the new arena.

At the antiquated Civic Arena -- where the ice sometimes was a problem but Roberts said ranked in the top third of all NHL venues -- workers had to override the HVAC thermostat and keep the concrete slab under the ice and the building cold. They crossed their fingers when the garage doors opened for delivery trucks, letting in a rush of outside air that changed the temperature and humidity.

The Consol Center, by contrast, has so many upgrades and design benefits that it will take a little while to find the right combination of temperature, humidity, water used to flood the surface, etc.

"It's a lot of new stuff, a lot of great technology, and a lot of things that we'll get the hang of," Roberts said. "Getting team feedback so we can make adjustments is very important."

The new arena has some level of climate control through things like airlocks, and engineers are learning to make adjustments based on things such as whether the arena has a sellout crowd or is empty for a practice. There is a reverse osmosis system to treat the tap water that Zamboni drivers use to clean and flood the ice.

"There's also a lot of 'feel' involved in it," Roberts said.

The players say the same thing about the way the puck plays off the new dasher boards.

Some have found the boards to be dead in spots, others have noticed some lively bounces off other spots and have seen pucks that are rimmed around the ends pick up a good amount of speed.

"I think the bounces off the boards are a little more consistent than they were at Mellon," defenseman Alex Goligoski said. "As long as you know what to expect and you're comfortable with where you think the puck is going to go, that's what you want."

Even better, the Penguins eventually will learn the "sweet spots."

"You could hit the puck off the same spot right now and it could bounce different ways," Crosby said. "You try and find those spots that are as consistent as possible, true bounces."

Learning the spots where the puck always comes out quickly, for example, can be a substantial home-ice advantage.

"We've had some ricochets off the boards that will be unique to our building," Bylsma said. "We would even experiment with shooting it off the end boards and using it as our strategy, maybe on the power play, point shots in particular, possibly shooting wide of the net and getting it to come back out front."

That can handcuff a visiting goaltender, but it can be a challenge for the Penguins' goalies, too, until they are comfortable with the new rink.

Marc-Andre Fleury played five periods of exhibition hockey at the new arena, and compiled two wins, a 1.20 goals-against average and a .963 save percentage. Still, he seems more nervous about learning the nuances of the new rink than his teammates.

He called the boards "tough to read," and said at times they are as lively as those in Detroit at Joe Louis Arena, which is known for having the liveliest boards in the NHL.

"I think it's something that maybe we can use," Fleury said. "We just need more games, more practices, to get used to it."

Settling in off the ice didn't take long, once the players stopped getting lost inside.

There is a large, football-shaped dressing room; expanded equipment and training areas that include a hydrotherapy room; a lounge with several TVs, a kitchen, a lot of seating areas and a bubble hockey game; and a large workout area with a juice bar.

Bylsma said he worried some that the complex would be too opulent, and noted that the lounge area was scaled down from original plans.

Still, he noted that the workout room, with its line of exercise bikes and weights, is the heart of the area and "is not a place you would want to buy a membership to for $200 a month. To me, it feels like a place of business and a place of work, and it is a nice place.

"I do look forward to getting wins in this place and making it a tough place to be an opponent, as opposed to just talking about how nice it is."


For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.


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