|Coach Michel Therrien guided the Penguins to a 47-24-11 record last season, the fourth largest single-season turnaround in NHL history.
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"They're still almost a bunch of teenagers," Therrien said.
So, yes, there are still mornings, even on game days -- especially on game days -- when Therrien, or a member of the Penguins staff, has to politely nudge many of the team's younger players off the ice.
It's a chore, but hardly a problem.
Therrien may worry about saving the energy of his players, but he sure doesn't want to curb their youthful exuberance, which could prove to be the key ingredient for a long playoff run this season.
The Penguins have eight regulars in the lineup who are 25 or younger, and yet those youngsters already have figured out how to both have fun and be serious at the same time, making it safe to assume Pittsburgh's future may very well be right now.
"We're just having fun out there," center Maxime Talbot, 24, said, "and I don't think you can ever have enough. We're still kids."
The young Penguins were playing the part Tuesday morning before a game in New York.
While veterans Darryl Sydor, Gary Roberts, Hal Gill, Sergei Gonchar and Petr Sykora were already undressing in the visitors' dressing room at Madison Square Garden after the morning skate, the youngsters were still out on the ice, messing around and playing games.
Jordan Staal, Tyler Kennedy, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury were the last guys in the dressing room. It had been a good 30 minutes since Sykora left the ice, deciding his morning workout was complete. He was already out of the shower and dressed.
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Ray Shero, the team's general manager, sees no reason to intercede.
"They like being out there, even if they're playing three games in four days," Shero said. "Hey, it's good. They just like screwing around, and it's not too strenuous. They like hanging out and having a good time. There is nothing wrong with that."
"There are times we have to say to those guys; 'Get off, get off the ice,' but hey, it's the way they are and that's OK," Therrien added. "They're young, and that is what makes this pretty special."
While the hockey world will have to wait until the Stanley Cup Playoffs to see how special these young Penguins truly can be this season, there is little denying that, right now, Pittsburgh may have the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.
Shero must think so, or else he wouldn't have mortgaged some future assets -- as well as established young players Colby Armstrong and Erik Christensen -- to pick up Pascal Dupuis and Marian Hossa, the prize of the trading market, at the deadline last month. Shero wouldn't have doled out more draft picks to nab defenseman Hal Gill from Toronto if he didn't already see promise in the group originally assembled.
"It's a risk in one way, but it shows the players that they think we're ready," Talbot said. "You're going to have teams like this once, maybe twice or three times in your career if you're lucky. We know we have a great opportunity in front of us."
Seven other teams likely will feel the same way come April 9, when the playoffs get underway. But, it's no longer a reach to think Pittsburgh is a legit contender as it might have been last season when Sidney Crosby's team became the first Pittsburgh team in four years to make the playoffs and got bounced by Ottawa in five games.
We have an aspiration and a goal to win the Stanley Cup this year, and I don't think we're reaching at all. We have a team that is close and has really good players. We have a chance to make a big run here. - Ryan Whitney"We have an aspiration and a goal to win the Stanley Cup this year, and I don't think we're reaching at all," said defenseman Ryan Whitney, 25. "We have a team that is close and has really good players. We have a chance to make a big run here."
Last season, as much as they wanted to believe they could make a big run, they really couldn't.
For many Penguins, it was their first playoff journey. Ottawa taught them a hard lesson; but without it the Pens still wouldn't understand the intensity of playoff hockey or know how high the stakes are and how each move is dissected by pundits everywhere.
"It's the experience of the playoffs," Shero said. "You can't buy it."
You also can't take a chance at winning for granted, especially in this salary-cap/free-agency era. Keeping a core together for an extended period of time is harder now than ever before, which makes winning now even more pressing.
"Who knows how long this team will be together?" said Whitney, who along with Crosby is playing under a long-term contract. "With the new CBA you have a three- or four-year window to win championships, and one of those years is right now for us."
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