A lesson to remember for Penguins

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RALEIGH, N.C. -- It's only one game, sure, the first game at that. There are 81 to follow. But that doesn't change the pertinent point about the Penguins last night: The team that is expected to give so much this season gave next to nothing in a 4-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.

Was that a bummer or what?

The other guys deserve some credit, obviously. The Hurricanes' performance is what Penguins veterans Gary Roberts and Mark Recchi spoke about so frequently during training camp. "There are going to be no easy nights this season," they warned. "Every team is going to give us their best shot." That's because so many of the so-called experts are picking the Penguins -- a young bunch that has yet to win a playoff series -- to win the Stanley Cup after their 47-point improvement last season. It's because Sidney Crosby has become the face of the NHL. Did you see Monday's edition of USA Today by any chance? Not one, not two, but three of the sports pages were dominated by huge pictures of Crosby, who is expected to win a second consecutive MVP award and another scoring championship in addition, of course, to hoisting the Cup.

"When is the last time you saw that with a hockey player?" Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik asked of Crosby's national attention, rolling his eyes.

The Gretzky era, maybe?

Anyway, the Hurricanes seemed to take it personally.

It's not as if they are bums; they won the Cup in '06.

Their best shot knocked the Penguins all the way out of the RBC Center and halfway back to Pittsburgh.

But be careful not to give the Carolina team too much praise. The Penguins had a big role in the outcome. They played awfully lame.

Not that coach Michel Therrien necessarily agreed.

"I don't think we ever lost our energy," he said, surprisingly calm.

That should tell you the kind of night it was, that the coach couldn't find anything better to be happy about than the fact his team didn't quit after being down, 4-0, after two periods. The Penguins are professionals, aren't they? They aren't supposed to quit.

There wasn't much else to like. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was careless with a couple of rebounds. He didn't get much help in front from winger Jarkko Ruutu and defenseman Darryl Sydor on two of the Carolina goals. Ruutu took two first-period penalties, one that Therrien described as "unacceptable ... behind the play ... Those are the kinds of things that stop your momentum." The great Crosby didn't have a point and had only one shot. None of the Penguins looked as if they were going to score until Recchi got a cheap goal four seconds after their 5-on-3 advantage ended late in the game.

"Very disappointing," Orpik said.

But maybe not so surprising.

"It seems like we spent all week answering questions about the predictions," Orpik said. "With us being a young team, maybe that [ticks] off the other team. That's something that's going to test our maturity all season. It's something we're going to have to be ready for every night."

Maybe the outcome would have been different if Penguins center Erik Christensen hadn't hit the crossbar early in the game. Or if Ruutu hadn't taken those bone-headed penalties or been able to clear a long rebound that Carolina's Eric Staal ended up banging past Fleury. Or if Sydor had been able to outfight Carolina's Andrew Ladd, who won the battle in front and lifted the puck past Fleury for a 3-0 lead. Or if Staal's centering pass hadn't clanged off Orpik's left skate and sneaked by Fleury for Carolina's second goal.

"He was trying to pass the puck to [Jeff] Hamilton," Orpik said. "I lifted Hamilton's stick off the ice. I thought I was making a good play."

Oh well.

"The only good part about it is we get to play again [tonight]," Orpik said. "We don't have much time to think about this one."

The Anaheim Ducks are in town to open the Mellon Arena portion of the Penguins' schedule. They won the Cup last season. They, too, can't possibly be thrilled about reading the predictions of Penguins greatness or seeing the pictures of Crosby.

Roberts and Recchi really do have it right. There are going to be no easy nights this season.


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


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