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HELENE ELLIOTT / ON THE NHL

Penguins keep marching strong

Defending Stanley Cup champions, who have a league-high 11 victories, continue working at getting even better.

November 03, 2009|HELENE ELLIOTT | ON THE NHL

Players roared and pumped their fists as the puck crossed the goal line, happily gathering at center ice to celebrate a hard-fought victory.

Were the Pittsburgh Penguins reenacting the final moments of their Stanley Cup triumph last June?

Hardly. The outburst was triggered by the outcome of a shootout drill Monday at Anaheim Ice.

Clearly, Coach Dan Bylsma is having no difficulty motivating his players to maintain the drive and excellence that propelled them past the Detroit Red Wings in last spring's riveting finals.

"I feel like we've been pushing harder as players than we were last year. There isn't a sign of complacency," Bylsma said. "If anything, it's there needs to be maybe a little bit of relaxing about how hard we push this early on."

The Penguins haven't been easy on themselves or opponents, collecting a league-high 11 wins as they start a four-game trip by facing the Ducks tonight at the Honda Center.

Despite starting the season without playoff spark plug Maxime Talbot, who was still recovering from shoulder surgery, and losing dynamic defenseman Sergei Gonchar to a broken left wrist, and last season's scoring leader and playoff most valuable player Evgeni Malkin to a shoulder strain, the Penguins are 6-0-0 on the road and rank among the NHL's top defensive teams.

All this, and Sidney Crosby only recently cracked the top-15 scoring leaders with nine goals and 16 points in 14 games.

"We've found a way to start well here. Even the last game that we lost we felt like we played pretty well," Crosby said of a 2-1 loss to Minnesota on Saturday.

"So we're happy with our play and there's no doubt we have a lot to improve on, but it's good that we can gain some momentum early on here."

In a sense, they never lost the momentum they generated last spring.

They've made changes, as any elite team must do in the salary-cap era. Defenseman Rob Scuderi, a shot-blocking marvel in the finals, became a free agent and signed with the Kings. Hal Gill, who teamed with Scuderi on the shutdown pair, signed with the Montreal Canadiens.

"You can never replace anybody," said left wing Chris Kunitz, traded by the Ducks to Pittsburgh in February for Ryan Whitney, "but it's a fresh start every year."

The heart of the team remains, and to that core the Penguins added veteran defenseman Jay McKee, who has blocked a league-high 44 shots. They gave a little more playing time to Kris Letang and Mark Eaton and a lot more to Alex Goligoski, who has responded with a league-best plus-12 rating.

"There wasn't a huge changeover. A lot of the faces are pretty familiar," Crosby said.

The Penguins' perseverance is familiar too.

"I think it's just good leadership, guys going out wanting to earn their job every night," Kunitz said.

That's rare. It's what helped them avenge their 2008 Cup finals loss to Detroit and inspires them to push themselves to greater heights during a season that will, for at least half a dozen Penguins, include appearances in the Vancouver Olympics.

"A lot of guys expect the absolute most out of themselves. That's what you want," Crosby said. "It's easier if you pull guys back a bit than to try to push them to be better.

"Anyone would be happy to deal with that. Guys are critical of themselves and of our team, but that's good. We've set our standards high. We'll have to continue getting better, but it's just the first month and it's natural to kind of have to work things out."

Bylsma said there's work to be done on the power play -- its 19.4% success rate is slightly below the NHL average -- and on maintaining what he called "jam and energy" against teams that would love to upset the Cup champions.

If they can make those strategic and mental adjustments, it's easy to foresee the Penguins reaching the Cup finals for a third straight season and becoming the first back-to-back champions since the 1997 and 1998 Red Wings.

"It's a long run. There's a lot of things that have to go your way," Crosby said. "I think we realize that from the last couple of years, but definitely that's our goal. We've been there the last couple of years and we know what it takes. It's a matter of applying it and then getting some luck as well."

helene.elliott@latimes.com

twitter.com/helenenothelen

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