• SHARE:
  • email
  • Bookmark and Share

Energized, relieved Penguins eager to get started with shortened season fast approaching

Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby takes part in drills during a player organized informal workout at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Zoom Image

Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby takes part in drills during a player organized informal workout at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

CANONSBURG, Pa. - Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma was in the midst of a little speech during his first day at his normal job in eight months when his players stopped suddenly and raised their sticks in the air.

The gesture served as a salute to the hundreds of fans who packed a suburban Pittsburgh hockey complex to watch the Penguins in their first official practice since the end of the NHL lockout.

The response—a chant of "Let's Go Penguins" by the folks who crammed elbow to elbow on concrete bleachers—erased any lingering concern about animosity over the four-month work stoppage that cut the league's season nearly in half.

Finally, it's back to hockey.

"It's pretty special to have a packed building," Bylsma said.

And it marked a stark contrast to the lockout, when a handful of players—captain Sidney Crosby included—would get together at the same facility for semi-formal drills in front of a handful of curious on-lookers.

The crowded ice and Bylsma's whistle gave things a sense of order following weeks of anxiety that the season might be lost completely.

Instead, it's game on for a team considered a Stanley Cup favourite now that Crosby appears to be fully recovered from concussion-like symptoms that dogged him for the better part of two seasons.

Not that Crosby wanted to get into the stakes on Sunday. His team can get to that down the road.

For once, it was nice to just have things feel like normal. Or at least as normal as preparing for a 48-game season in a week can feel anyway.

"It felt a little bit different," Crosby said. "The meetings were a little bit shorter, just kind of a shorter version of everything, a condensed version. I don't think anything was wrong with that. I didn't mind not having to do fitness testing and shorter meetings."

Maybe it's because the Penguins have few holes to fill. The team invited just 26 players to camp, meaning there will only be a handful of cuts before the season starts on Saturday in Philadelphia.

The biggest question Bylsma will need to answer over the next six days is who to put on a line with reigning MVP Evgeni Malkin and winger James Neal.

Veteran forward Steve Sullivan signed with Phoenix in the off-season, creating one of the most enviable open jobs in all of hockey.

Forward Eric Tangradi will get the first crack at it on Monday, when Malkin is expected to join the team following a few months playing for the KHL in his native Russia. Malkin appeared to be rounding into form at the end of his KHL run, finishing with 23 goals and 42 assists in 37 games.

Bylsma expects fatigue not to be an issue for Malkin or the other players who took part-time jobs internationally or spent time in the minors while the seemingly endless labour negotiations dragged out.

It certainly wasn't an issue on Sunday, when the 90-minute session was considered "torrid" by some of the Penguins coaches.

"It was fast, it was quick and Sidney Crosby was revved up and going, flying up the ice at times," Bylsma said. "I think once we got into some battle areas, you saw some bumping and grinding, some physical play down low that most guys aren't prepared for, at least on a long-term basis."

There were end-to-end rushes, battles in the corner and a sense of optimism that the ugly finish to the 2011-12 season is now firmly behind them.

The Penguins entered the post-season riding high only to get beat by the Flyers in six games in the opening round of the playoffs.

The series looked more like a series of defence-optional All-Star games. The teams combined for 56 goals in six games, an anomaly that left a bitter taste in Pittsburgh.

Forward Pascal Dupuis says he spent most of the lockout fending off questions about what happened while back in his native Canada.

"It was all anybody wanted to talk about," he said.

Pittsburgh would prefer to change the conversation over the next three-plus months in which they'll cram 48 games into 99 days.

Bylsma expects to give No. 1 goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury plenty of rest while giving newly acquired backup Tomas Vokoun a steady workload during the season.

Then again, that could change. Bylsma and the Penguins allow they'll likely have to make some of it up as they go along.

"We'll see," Dupuis said. "I don't think anybody can really predict how this is going to play out, but we're happy to be back."

___

Follow Will Graves on twitter at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP

More Stories

Wild goalie Josh Harding out indefinitely with broken foot, with training camp approaching

ST. PAUL, Minn. - Minnesota Wild goalie Josh Harding has a broken right foot, putting him out...

Playoffs approaching, Blues need goalie Ryan Miller to step up game

ST. LOUIS - Exactly as advertised, Ryan Miller came to the St. Louis Blues and the goals-against...

Column: Who knew NHL playoffs would score so big with fans after lockout-shortened season?

The season that almost wasn't has turned out better than anyone dared expect. The NHL still...

Time to crown NHL award winners in shortened season as Stanley Cup chase heats up

Remember the lockout? All that outrage over meaningless November and December games that were...
blog comments powered by Disqus

THN on Twitter

Do you think the Blue Jackets can make the playoffs without Nathan Horton?




Contests

Our Partners