Fun, competitiveness top menu at Penguins practice

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The greatest challenge in hockey these days is winning an Olympic gold medal, something Canada or Sweden will achieve Sunday in Sochi, Russia.

Trying to structure and stage productive practices for NHL clubs whose lineups have been gutted by Olympic participation and injuries might be nearly as difficult.

The Penguins had nine skaters and three goalies for their first two workouts in the wake of the league’s Olympic break. They added winger Taylor Pyatt for a 75-minute session Friday at Southpointe, but still didn’t come close to the usual complement of players.

“You can’t have a normal practice with nine skaters,” right winger Craig Adams said. “Until we have more than nine guys, it’s not going to be a regular practice.”

With seven players who fill prominent roles unavailable because of the Olympics and a handful of others missing due to injuries, some practice staples, like special teams work, aren’t practical.

And it’s kind of tough to do meaningful line rushes when only five or six forwards — just one of whom skates on the top two lines — are present.

Still, assistant coach Todd Reirden, who has been overseeing practices while coach Dan Bylsma and assistant Tony Granato work with Team USA, said he believes the workouts have served their intended purpose as the Penguins prepare to resume play Thursday against Montreal at Consol Energy Center.

“I’m real happy with the three days,” he said.

More significant is that his players feel the same.

“It’s been a really good three days,” Adams said. “That’s a credit to the coaches.”

Specifically, to their preparation.

Reirden, who has been assisted by Jacques Martin and goalie coach Mike Bales, set objectives for each of the past three days, and had a plan to make them attainable.

Day one, he said, “was kind of getting re-acclimated with playing ice hockey, after 11 days of being off the ice.”

The emphasis then was on “a lot of individual skills, a lot of puck touches, a lot of handles, a lot of shots for our goalies.”

Thursday, there was more emphasis on game-type situations. Contact, minimal Wednesday, was an integral part of the second-day activities.

“We started to add in some of the details of our defensive-zone coverage,” Reirden said. “We did some one-on-ones, some two-on-ones and finished off with a two-on-two competition in a tight area, so they were able to do some battling.”

Friday, the 10 skaters were divided into two groups, and every activity, including the shootout that ended the session, pitted one squad against the other.

“I thought [Friday’s] session was the best of the week,” Reirden said. “Guys were sharper, and I thought the compete level was at the highest of the three days.”

Reirden and the other coaches deserve much of the credit for that, because they’ve avoided having the practices become predictable or dull. There’s been enough variety in drills that boredom hasn’t been an issue.

“I’m sure it’s not easy for the coaching staff to develop a practice that has an intensity and a purpose to it, but they’ve done that,” defenseman Robert Bortuzzo said. “And I think the guys appreciate that.”

Because players are naturally competitive, parts of the workout in which there are clear winners and losers — be it a two-on-two scrimmage on short ice or a basic shootout — are particularly effective at capturing and maintaining their attention.

“You want some variety to try to keep it fun,” Adams said. “Get back in shape, but do it in a way where you’re having a good time and competing against the guys. So far, it’s been that way.”

The Penguins will be off today and, while their workouts will resume Sunday, practices likely will remain somewhat undermanned until at least the middle of next week.

That’s because six of the seven Olympians remain alive in the tournament (although Team USA defenseman Paul Martin is injured) and likely will take a little time off after the Games end.

Nonetheless, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury figures it won’t be all that long before the participation rate in practices returns to its usual level.

“We’ll get those guys back soon,” he said, “and it will be like usual again.”

Dave Molinari: and Twitter @MolinariPG

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