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Ailing Sykora 'freed' from hotel

by Shawn P. Roarke
STOCKHOLM – So, this is what Stockholm looks like?

That pretty much paraphrased Petr Sykora's thought process as he took the team bus to Wednesday's practice at the Globe Arena.

It might only be a 15-minute ride from the team's hotel in Old Town to the arena here in the Hammarby section of the city, but for Sykora, it was a taste of sweet freedom after being cooped up in his hotel room while fighting a sore throat. He wasn't even willing to complain about the high-intensity of the practice, his first on-ice session in five days.

"It's nice to just leave the hotel room for a little while," Sykora said. "I feel great. It wasn't easy out there today. I was anxious to get back. I just want to get a game in and be ready for Saturday and Sunday.

Saturday marks the start of the Bridgestone NHL Premiere 2008 series against Ottawa here at the Globe. The second game is Sunday.

First, though, Sykora wants to play in Thursday's exhibition against Jokerit in Helsinki to help him recapture both his timing and his conditioning. Sykora knows he is in a race against time to be 100 percent by Saturday, but he is willing to put in the necessary work.

"It doesn't matter if you are sick or not," he said. "If you don't skate for five days, it is going to be bad."

At least Sykora didn't lose his sense of humor during his convalescence.

Asked for an update on his condition, Sykora told the media he enjoyed his trip home to the Czech Republic to visit his family, suggesting that he wasn't sick as reported, but had snuck away for a quick trip home.

A FAMILIAR FOE – When Pittsburgh faces Ottawa on Saturday, a familiar face will be lining up for the Senators. Left wing Jarkko Ruutu was a Penguin for the past two seasons before signing as a free agent with Ottawa this summer.

Ruutu is one of those players you love to have on your team but hate to play against. For two seasons the Penguins have watched Ruutu drive opponents to distraction with his confrontational, grating style of play. This weekend, they will be on the receiving end of the Ruutu treatment.

Sidney Crosby says he is looking forward to it … in a way.

"He'll be doing his thing for sure," Crosby said Wednesday. "That's just Ruuts. When we had him, he did that job well for us."

A WORK IN PROGRESS – Many believe Sidney Crosby is the best player in the world, but Crosby sees room for improvement.

That has to be a scary proposition for the rest of the NHL, considering Crosby scored 72 points last season in just 53 games, and has 294 points in his first 213 NHL games.

But Crosby told the Finnish media there are aspects of his game that he is working to improve.

"I'm always trying to improve anything," Crosby said. "For me, consistency is a big thing. Defensively, I want to be responsible out there. I'm getting the chance to kill penalties, too. Faceoffs are a big thing for me to work on as well. I want to be better at that."

In fact, the drive to improve and find new areas to exploit is one of the hallmarks of Crosby's game, even though he just turned 21 in August.

"If you stop learning, then you are in trouble," he said.

MORE MALKIN – Everyone is interested to see how Evgeni Malkin will respond to the loss of Sergei Gonchar, his closest friend and sometimes translator. Gonchar underwent surgery Wednesday in Pittsburgh in an attempt to repair his dislocated left shoulder. He will be out 4-6 months.

"Without Gonch, I think (Evgeni) will naturally step up on the ice and off the ice." -- Penguins GM Ray Shero

"He helped me every day," Malkin said. Now, Malkin will have to do more for himself, including conducting more interviews in English.

Many members of the team are hoping the added responsibility will help Malkin step further out of his shell and take more of a leadership role.

"Gonch has been there for Geno since Day 1," Crosby said. "But maybe this will help him. The little good you can take out of this (situation) is that Geno takes a little more of a leadership role."

That's something management would like to see, as well.

"Without Gonch, I think (Evgeni) will naturally step up on the ice and off the ice," General Manager Ray Shero said.

The Penguins would like to speed along that maturation process as much as possible. Thursday, Malkin will likely be an alternate captain for the exhibition game against Jokerit. There also is a chance he could be a part of the cadre of players that will serve as alternate captains during the regular season.

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