After a surprising turnaround last season, the young and talented Pittsburgh Penguins enter 2007-08 with very high expectations.
The Penguins hope to pick up where they left off as they open their season on the road Friday against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Pittsburgh made the fourth-biggest improvement in NHL history last season, going 47-24-11 after recording just 22 wins in 2005-06. The Penguins advanced to the playoffs before losing in five games to eventual Eastern Conference champion Ottawa in the first round.
Now, the team is being mentioned as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender for this season.
"I think all the elements are in place," forward Maxime Talbot said. "For sure it's a long season, you never know what's going to happen, but I'm sure we've got the personnel and skill to win and that's exciting."
Still, the Penguins are a young team. Sidney Crosby is the reigning NHL MVP, defending league scoring champion and a two-time 100-point scorer, but is entering just his third season and is only 20. Rookie of the year Evgeni Malkin, who had 33 goals and 85 points last season, is 21 and Jordan Staal, who scored 29 goals as a rookie in '06-07, is 19.
Marc-Andre Fleury, who won 40 games and posted five shutouts last season, turns 23 next month.
The Penguins tried to address their lack of experience in the offseason, bringing in 35-year-old defenseman Darryl Sydor and forward Petr Sykora, 30. Sykora, who had 22 goals and 31 assists with Edmonton, will play on a line with Crosby and Staal.
"I think I can bring a lot of playoff experience," said Sykora, who has 247 goals and 318 assists in 12 seasons and has played in 88 postseason games. "Even when I scored 25-30 goals, I never played with a player like Sidney or Malkin."
Pittsburgh also re-signed 41-year-old left wing Gary Roberts, who had seven goals and six assists in 19 games for the Penguins after being acquired Feb. 27 from Florida.
"There has to be a sense of focus to make sure we do something with these guys, and not take for granted that they're good players and good names and expect that it's going to be easy," Crosby said. "It's not."
Pittsburgh won't have to cope with some of the distractions that surrounded the team last season. The Penguins came close to leaving town as they pushed for a new arena, but have committed to staying in Pittsburgh through 2040 and will get a new building in 2010.
Coach Michel Therrien also got a one-year contract extension through 2008-09.
"We have the team to do it, it's just a matter of pulling together and getting that chemistry and, hopefully from that, working for a Stanley Cup," Staal said. "The depth is pretty amazing. We've got four lines that can score and do everything well."
The Penguins were 1-3-0 against the Hurricanes last season and lost both games in Raleigh. Crosby had three goals and an assist in the series.
The Hurricanes lost 3-2 in overtime to Montreal in their season opener Wednesday. Erik Cole and Bret Hedican scored for Carolina, which missed the playoffs last season after winning the Stanley Cup in 2005-06.
Cam Ward made 37 saves for the Hurricanes, but Carolina allowed all three goals on the power play, including Saku Koivu's goal 1:05 into the extra period.
"You go down 4-on-3 for 2 minutes in overtime, it certainly reduces the chance of coming back," Carolina coach Peter Laviolette said.
The Hurricanes ranked 25th in the league last season with a 15.0 percent conversion rate on the power play. However, they killed off 84.6 percent of their opponents' chances with the man advantage, tying them for sixth in the NHL.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, converted 20.3 percent of its power-play chances, good for fifth in the league. Crosby had 61 of his NHL-best 120 points on special teams.
Carolina's Scott Walker had four goals and an assist in four games against Pittsburgh last season.