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Penguins' start has them atop NHL

Friday, 10.23.2009 / 12:07 PM / NHL Insider

NHL.com

At 8-1-0 after nine games this season, the Pittsburgh Penguins sit atop the Atlantic Division, the Eastern Conference and the entire NHL, for that matter, and are off to the second-best start in franchise history.

So, any concerns of a Stanley Cup hangover for the 2009 champs would appear to be unfounded.

The Penguins, winners of six straight, host the struggling Florida Panthers on Friday night at Mellon Arena (7:30 p.m. ET, NHL Network-Canada) and the game has more riding on it than you might suspect since it will be the Pens' first game without defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who suffered a broken wrist in a win against the St. Louis Blues Tuesday night.

"They will be fine because they went through that stretch last year without me, and the experience of winning the Stanley Cup has helped us," Gonchar told Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "We went through the playoffs and played at a high level. It was a faster pace, which made every player better. That experience stays with you."

Not surprisingly, the Penguins promise to soldier on.

"That's the situation we face and we've been here before," captain Sidney Crosby told the team's Web site. "I think the story doesn't change when you lose guys. Other guys have to step up, especially without Gonchar. He's a big part of our team. We're going to have a bunch of guys do that."

"It is a tough loss," said Kris Letang. "Obviously he is the general at the point and very good on the power play, setting the puck up and bringing it up ice. There is going to be some adjustment. We are not going to try to replace him but do the best we can do with what we have."

For coach Dan Bylsma, Gonchar's injury means shifting around his defense and inserting veteran Martin Skoula into the mix. He will pair Brooke Orpik with Alex Goligoski, Jay McKee with Skoula and Letang and Mark Eaton to open the game against the Panthers.

"That would be a tentative starting plan," Bylsma said. "Again, we have talked about different scenarios within a game where that might change, as well.

"I think it is probably too early to say; 'Hey we are going with three pairings and this is how it is going to be.' It may be a situation where the pairings start one way and a different situation lends to seeing a 3 (Goligoski) and a 58 (Letang) together more often. Right now we are going to see how that goes. We have talked about it and bounced some things out."

Skoula, a longtime NHL player, started the season without a team and signed with the Penguins at the start of the season. Now, he has gone from a spare part right into the thick of things.

"I'm sure (Skoula) didn't want it to be that way, but it's still a great opportunity for him to get in," Crosby said. "He's a guy that's experienced. It's not like he'll have the nerves and things like that. He'll be able to come in and use that experience to his advantage."

The Penguins' impressive firepower should help the team remain in the thick of things with or without Gonchar. Evgeni Malkin has 7 points in his last five games and Crosby has 3 assists in the last two games. Goligoski has 3 points in three games.

In goal, Marc Andre Fleury is tops in the NHL with eight wins and third in the League with a 1.96 goals-against average.


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