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Now Playing in LA: Sid the Kid

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings
It's hard to imagine that two of the NHL's best - Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, have only played in LA once in their careers.

When the Pittsburgh Penguins head to the West Coast to play, they're less like a hockey team and more like a wildly popular, but aging, rock band.

The posters could read, "See them now! Who knows when you'll get another chance!"

The Penguins will face the Kings at STAPLES Center on Thursday night for the first time since Nov. 1, 2006. For some perspective, that game was Evgeni Malkin's sixth career NHL game, and Sidney Crosby had yet to win any NHL individual or league trophies.

Since then, Crosby has become the league's most valuable player, its top scorer and the captain of a Stanley Cup champion. It all happened far away from Los Angeles, because of league scheduling rules that don't have teams playing in each other's arena every season.

The current setup allows a team to submit a list of 10 teams from the other conference that it would like to host. There's certainly no guarantee that every team will get its wish, particularly since Pittsburgh is almost certainly at or near the top of every team's list.

In practice, every team should now come to Los Angeles at least every other year, but there are no guarantees, and there's no assurance that local fans will get to see stars.

For instance, Malkin will miss tomorrow's game with a shoulder injury. If the Penguins don't return to Los Angeles until the 2011-12 season, that means Malkin will have played only one game in Los Angeles in his first five full NHL seasons.

The counterargument makes sense, that more games against Western Conference teams builds familiarity, which builds rivalries and intense games. It also cuts down on travel, but players seem to understand the benefit of having annual home-and-home series.

"I feel every team should play everywhere every year," said Pittsburgh winger Bill Guerin, a 17-year NHL veteran. "I do. We have a couple special players on our team that I feel the fans in other cities should be able to see. It's good for the game. The travel would be a little bit more, a little crazier, but my God, we're all on chartered flights now, we're all on nice big planes and we stay in great hotels. It's not that big of a deal.

"Especially in the East, we're spoiled. We have a great travel schedule for most of the year. I think, in order to grow the game and for the popularity of the sport and the players, I think it's important. Sidney, this is his fifth year and he has played here once. And this is L.A. He should play in L.A. every year. People here should see him."

Crosby is the star attraction in any city he visits, said he enjoys the opportunity to visit West Coast arenas but, when asked directly, stopped short of saying he endorses the idea of playing every Western Conference team on the road every season.

"I like playing different teams, for sure, but it's got to work," Crosby said. "It's got to be something that's manageable for us as players, as well. We've got to, in a way, be kind of selfish and we can't be everywhere.

"We have to make sure it's manageable, but yeah, the more often we can play different teams, and everyone can see different teams, I think that's great for everyone."

Luc Robitaille has seen it from both sides. As a Hall of Fame player who played on both coasts, Robitaille acknowledged that the travel is tough but also noted the value of team-building that can take place on long cross-country road trips.

Now, as the Kings' president of business operations, Robitaille has an interest in bringing teams to STAPLES Center that fans want to see. The arrival of the Penguins, for instance, moves the needle much more than a fourth home game against Dallas or Phoenix would.

"When you're a hockey fan, you want to see every team," Robitaille said. "You enjoy seeing every team, and when you get an opportunity to see the Stanley Cup champion from the year before, I think our fans deserve that.

"They want to see Sidney Crosby and the team that won the Cup, or see (Washington's Alexander) Ovechkin. It should be like that. Or see the New York Rangers or the Montreal Canadiens. As a fan, you get a kick out of seeing all those teams. To me, it's very important that we need to keep pushing for that."

This season, the Kings got Pittsburgh, but perhaps the timing could have been better. The Penguins, last season's Stanley Cup champions, haven't missed a beat, even with injuries to Malkin, defenseman Sergei Gonchar (wrist) and forward Max Talbot (shoulder).

The Penguins are atop the Eastern Conference with a 12-3 record, including a 7-0 record on the road.

"When you're on the road, there's a little more structure," Crosby said. "Guys are together and things like that, but at the same time I think it just comes down to consistency and making sure that you get to your game. It's easy to lose that when you're playing on the road, so that's probably our biggest focus."

Pittsburgh picked up a 4-3 victory over Anaheim on Tuesday night, a game that drew 16,128 fans to Honda Center. That was the Ducks' second-largest announced crowd of the season, behind only an opening-night sellout against San Jose.

The Penguins will finish their West Coast swing Saturday at San Jose then, remarkably, won't leave the Eastern time zone until Jan. 11. That's a huge part of the continent that won't even be within driving distance of watching the defending champions.

"I think people are excited to see a different team," Guerin said. "I'm glad they changed it. When we were playing our division rivals eight times, that was a lot. I don't care what fans say, that gets boring. I think it's good for the fans to see the other teams, the teams from the East and the players that are on those teams."

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