Penguins' task: Cope with great expectations

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Alice Kilgore probably had it right. You remember her, don't you? She's the Castle Shannon woman who opened her front door last week and saw Sidney Crosby delivering her Penguins' season tickets in one of those special made-for-TV moments. She might have been momentarily speechless, but she never lost her wits. "I don't think you'll win the Cup this year," she told Crosby. "Not yet. Maybe next year."

That's clear, rational thinking, if you ask me.

It's also something that appears to be in short supply in this city when it comes to its hockey team.

Doesn't the overwhelming sentiment seem to be Stanley Cup or bust?

And isn't that a bit premature?

That isn't to say the outrageous expectations are surprising. There are a lot of reasons to love these Penguins, who gathered at Southpointe yesterday for the start of training camp. They made a staggering 47-point improvement last season. Their young players -- notably Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Ryan Whitney and Marc-Andre Fleury -- went through a long season and/or the grind of a playoff chase for the first time. They got a taste of postseason hockey, priceless experience even if it came in a five-games-and-out first-round loss to the Ottawa Senators. Coach Michel Therrien has settled in and starts his second full season. Gary Roberts -- one of hockey's great leaders -- is with the team from Day One. Respected veterans Darryl Sydor and Petr Sykora were brought in to fill sizable holes.

"I really think we have something special here," Roberts said yesterday.

What isn't to love?

This is a young, exciting team, clearly on the way up.

But a Stanley Cup?

For a bunch that hasn't won a playoff series yet?

That's a little much for Ms. Kilgore and me to ask.

"It sure beats going to camp with a team that's hoping to God just to make the playoffs," veteran winger Mark Recchi said.

"But we all know we have a lot of work to do."

Just to be sure, Therrien and general manager Ray Shero reminded everyone at a team meeting Thursday that the Penguins were starting with zero points, not the 105 they finished with last season. "'Think about tomorrow, not the Stanley Cup finals. Get ready for the first game and worry about the next game after that. Every game counts,'" winger Max Talbot said, reciting the mantra.

It's easy to believe that won't be a problem with this group. "I like these guys' hunger to get better and do things the right way," Roberts said. The team's strong leadership -- not just at the top with Shero and Therrien, but with Roberts, Recchi and Crosby, who, at 20, is the NHL's youngest captain -- won't allow the players to slack off. "We've still got a lot left to prove," Sid The Man said, steely. (Sorry, Sid The Kid no longer seems appropriate).

What is a concern is that most of the breaks and loose pucks went the Penguins' way last season. They tend to balance out. The team was even more fortunate with injuries. The only significant player to lose ice time after mid-December was defenseman Mark Eaton. Look out if Crosby or Malkin or Whitney or Fleury goes down for significant time.

The competition in the Atlantic Division also should be stiffer. The New York Rangers brought in Scott Gomez and Chris Drury. The Philadelphia Flyers signed Daniel Briere and traded for Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell. "Expecting to get 16 points off Philly again probably isn't as realistic as it was last year," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik conceded.

Those 105 points aren't a given, either.

"Everybody's going to want to knock us off," Roberts said. "It's going to be the same for us as the team that won the Cup. The press has built us way up. The 47-point increase. The fact we have Sid, and he's the best player in the game ...

"They're all going to be coming after us."

Funny, the wise, old vet didn't sound all that afraid.

"Are they saying we're higher than where we're going to end up? That's only for us to decide," Roberts said.

"We've got to take the challenge. We've still got to go to work every day and be a pro every day. As long as we do that and don't look too far ahead, I think we have as good a chance as anyone."

There's only one thing left to say after that:

Taking the liberty of speaking for Ms. Kilgore, we'd love to be wrong.

Tall order

Adam Hall has played 306 games in the NHL and never has to go through what he is attempting now ... attending the Penguins' training camp on a tryout.

-- Story,

Page C-10


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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