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Four teams to open NHL regular season in Europe @NHLdotcom

STOCKHOLM, Sweden (AP) -Sidney Crosby will lead a new-look Pittsburgh team in front of a new audience Saturday when the NHL starts its season in two European cities.

The Penguins hope it won't be the same mediocre start they've had in recent seasons.

"In the last couple of years we probably didn't start amazing, but decent enough to stay with the pack," Crosby said ahead of two season-opening games against the Ottawa Senators in Stockholm. "We probably want to improve on that and start even better. We have a great test in our first two games against Ottawa here."

The NHL is returning to Europe this weekend with regular-season openers in both the Swedish and Czech capitals. In Prague, the New York Rangers take on the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Last year, the Anaheim Ducks and the Los Angeles Kings opened the season with two games in London, and the NHL is looking to expand its presence in Europe.

Crosby, whose team lost in the Stanley Cup finals to the Detroit Red Wings last season, said he's been impressed by the European fans during the last week, which included practices in Stockholm and an exhibition in Finland.

"They support hockey pretty well from what I've seen," said the 21-year-old Crosby, who finished the 2006-07 regular season as the first teenager in NHL history to win the scoring title. His star power was one of the reasons this weekend's games sold out in a matter of minutes.

This year, Crosby will have to adopt to a number of changes to the Penguins' lineup, brought on by free agency departures and injuries. He is expected to form a scoring line with newcomers Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko, after All-Star forward Marian Hossa joined Detroit.

Crosby had three assists to lead Pittsburgh past Jokerit 4-1 Thursday in the Finnish capital of Helsinki, giving the Penguins a 4-0-1 preseason record.

Several North American teams, including the Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs, have played exhibitions here throughout the years, but this is the first time the NHL regular season opens in Scandinavia.

The Stockholm game will be played at the Globe, a huge, golf-ball shaped arena that can be seen from many parts of the city and has hosted both World Cup and world championship games.

The Swedish fans will also get to see one their own big stars in Daniel Alfredsson, the Ottawa captain, who helped Sweden win Olympic gold in 2006. On Thursday, Alfredsson had one goal and one assist as Ottawa beat his former team Frolunda 4-1 to close out the preseason with a 4-2-0 record.

"It's been a great experience so far," Alfredsson said after an open practice session Friday. "We've had good practices. We would like to get off to a great start. Hopefully we can win the first game and put the pressure on them. ... But we have a lot of respect for them. They play good defensively and have good individual players."

The Czechs, however, are likely disappointed that Jaromir Jagr is no longer a member of the New York Rangers. The team will feature Czechs Petr Prucha and Michal Rozsival in the two games against Tampa Bay.

"It's fun that both teams have some Czech players and they get to play before their hometown friends and family," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said.

Tampa Bay forward Vaclav Prospal is looking forward to the two-game set.

"It's a special feeling that I can play an NHL game in my country in front of my family members and all the friends," Prospal said. "For me personally, the greatest thing is that my teammates who are here with us get a chance to see where we're coming from and they get to know the Czech Republic a little bit. Hopefully we're going to start the season on a good note here in Prague."

The games in Prague - the first between NHL teams in the Czech Republic - will be played at the O2 Arena, which was sold out in hours. Thursday's open practice by the teams was watched by some 8,500 people.

"We did some very unique things in our practice that made you think the guys were trying to put on a bit of a show, but it was good," Rangers coach Tom Renney said. "The enthusiasm is certainly there. I remember back to the '04 world championships here and it was just an incredible environment."


Associated Press writer Karel Janicek in Prague, Czech Republic, contributed to this report.

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