Cook: Penguins offer intriguing mix of present and future

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OK, it's official.

These Penguins are intriguing.

Not Stanley Cup-champion material, by any stretch. Not even a dead-lock playoff team, at least not yet.

Intriguing.

After four consecutive seasons of losing, it almost seems too good to be true.

After four consecutive seasons of last place, we'll take it.

Heck, after the Steelers' 2-6 start, we need it.

"The attitude of this team has been terrific," veteran winger Mark Recchi said last night.

The record is pretty good, too.

It's 7-4-2 even after the 4-3 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning at Mellon Arena last night.

"We know we can be a really good team," Recchi said.

Nothing that happened against the Lightning should do much damage to that confidence. This was a fairly impressive point that the Penguins earned, even if they did waste a 3-2 lead in the third period. They weren't just coming off an overtime loss Monday night in Anaheim and a regulation loss Saturday night in San Jose, their first toe stubs of the young season. They looked all but dead before climbing out of a 2-0 hole midway through the game, mostly because of Nils Ekman's natural hat trick in the second period. And they did it in that dreaded first home game after a long trip.

Forever, hockey people have moaned about how tough those games are to win. They never offer any tangible reasons. They just accept their licking and get ready for the next game.

Not this Penguins team.

At least it didn't go down quietly.

Maybe the players' body clocks adjusted to the time change.

Maybe the wife and kids didn't throw them off their routine this time.

Or maybe -- dare we think it? -- the team is pretty good.

"Look at our division," Recchi went on. "We played the [New York] Rangers and beat them. We played the [New York] Islanders and beat them on the road. We beat Philly twice, although I don't know if that's saying much right now. Jersey will always be Jersey, but we beat them and played two good games against them.

"The division is there for us to win."

Easy.

Recchi knows a winner when he sees one -- he played on two Stanley Cup champion teams -- but that's too much to bite off right now.

It's Nov. 9. We'll know more in January. Actually, we'll know more by late Monday night when the Penguins complete a grueling four-games-in-six-nights stretch, their toughest test of the season so far.

"It's going to be really important to see where we are," Recchi said. "We've got a chance to put the pedal to the metal and really get something going."

Anything seems possible because of how solid Marc-Andre Fleury has played in goal. He was fairly strong again last night, stopping 27 shots. It's pretty hard to blame him for Vincent Lecavalier's breakaway goal in overtime. Fleury, more than Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, will determine how far the Penguins go.

But the goaltending isn't what has been most impressive in the season's first month. It's the team's resiliency. The Penguins haven't exactly taken the easy path to success. They've been outshot in 11 of the 13 games, yet have seven wins. They've given up the first goal in each of the past five games, yet managed to win two and get a point in two others. A year ago, they would have lost all five, probably all blowouts.

That's progress.

It's hard to think it will be this good all season. The loss of defenseman Mark Eaton to wrist surgery over the weekend was a killer. The lack of quality wingers to play with Crosby and Malkin also could bring the Penguins down. If the team had better forwards, Crosby and Malkin would be centering their own lines instead of playing together.

Coach Michel Therrien was frustrated enough midway through the game last night that he split Crosby and Malkin in something of a desperate attempt to get the offense going. He has had a problem finding a capable right winger to play on the Crosby-Malkin line. He started Chris Thorburn there last night after using Michel Ouellet and Colby Armstrong in the previous two games, clearly not liking the results.

That's why Ekman ended up on Crosby's line with Armstrong.

At least for one night, the combination clicked.

Even if it continues to click, the Penguins still probably are a year or two away -- not to mention a significant trade acquisition and/or free-agent signing away -- from being something much greater than just intriguing.

"The future is scary here," Recchi said, "and it's not that far away."

This much is certain, anyway:

This time of year, we're usually looking forward to the next Steelers' game.

Now, we have the Penguins' home game against Ottawa tomorrow night.

Progress, indeed.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525.


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