Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby hoists the Stanley Cup after the Penguins beat the Detroit Red Wings 2-1 to win Game 7 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup finals in Detroit, Friday, June 12, 2009. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/The Canadian Press, Frank Gunn)
PITTSBURGH - Last season was joyfully long, the off-season far too short. The Pittsburgh Penguins were toting the Stanley Cup to their hometowns to celebrate only a few weeks ago, now a new season is nearly here.
Ready or not.
The Penguins have played hockey in all but four of the past 25 calendar months, and they're facing another nearly nine-month journey if they're to become the first team since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997-98 to repeat as NHL champions. It's a grind that can wear down the most talented, experienced and determined of teams.
The Penguins' elite players remain young - in other pro sports, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Marc-Andre Fleury would only be starting their careers, yet this will be Fleury's sixth season and Crosby's fifth. Being young can help a player get over injuries quicker, recover quickly from difficult road trips and bounce back faster from difficult defeats.
Youth, however, does not ensure motivation or desperation when it's needed, and not only did the Penguins play into June while winning the Stanley Cup this year, they also did so while not winning it in 2008. That's a lot of games - 208, counting the playoffs but not the preseason - and a lot of wear and tear.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, who found himself a Stanley Cup champion even before he'd run his first training camp as an NHL coach, spent considerable time during the short off-season trying to figure out the best way to get his team ready. Not just for the start of the season, but January and March, too.
As Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood said, it's one thing to talk about being mentally ready and motivated to play a mid-October game - doing it after winning a Stanley Cup is far more difficult.
"I wouldn't use the word worry. I have thought about it a lot," Bylsma said. "It's something we're trying to think about carefully, using our words and carefully structuring practice and scheduling, based on the fact we've played a lot of hockey games.
"We're conscious of the fact people tell us we won the Stanley Cup last year over and over again."
Bylsma has been careful not to overwork Crosby and Malkin during the preseason, although most coaches do that with their top players. Neither player appeared in Tuesday night's exhibition in Toronto.
While Crosby and Malkin previously experienced winning scoring titles and MVP awards - Crosby during the season, Malkin during the postseason - neither has been a defending champion before.
Malkin is convinced these Penguins will win more titles. Crosby believes that winning once is difficult enough, but that winning twice will be harder still.
"It's different. We want to set the bar and we did that last year, but a lot of teams are going to be motivated to beat us," Crosby said. "We have to realize there's a big responsibility and a big sense of pride that comes with that.
"You have to be ready every night because you're going to see everyone's best."
The Penguins likely will experience that during a four-game road trip against Eastern Conference opponents Philadelphia, Toronto, Ottawa and Carolina from Oct. 8-15. They've been a prime attraction around the league for several seasons, but now they're the champions, too.
NHL teams may find it difficult to lug their best game to the rink for, say, an Islanders game in November, but it's rarely a problem when the Stanley Cup champion is the opponent.
"There's always been a lot of buzz around our team, and I think we've gotten used to that, even going to the finals (in 2008)," Crosby said. "Most teams get up for you. That shouldn't be a huge change."
Some Penguins players won't play games for two weeks during the Olympic break in February, no doubt a much-welcomed break. But Pittsburgh's core players are expected to be in Vancouver.
Crosby and Malkin and possibly others will go from the grind of the regular season into a playoffs-plus atmosphere in Vancouver, then gear down again for the end of the season. Then, unless the Penguins should unexpectedly collapse, it's the playoffs again.
The Olympics will only complicate what already is a long season, but forward Bill Guerin said the Penguins' stars should welcome it.
"So what? Enjoy it," the 38-year-old Guerin said. "It's what we do.
"It's their job, it's their life, it's what they like to do. The opportunity to play in the Olympics is a great experience, it's a great honour. Play every chance you get, don't pass up those opportunities and enjoy it."