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Penguins raise another banner, begin three-peat bid

Back-to-back Stanley Cup champions have several new faces, are work in progress

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins raised another Stanley Cup banner Wednesday, and then raised the curtain on a new season with a 5-4 overtime loss to the St. Louis Blues.

To the Penguins, the moment that 2017 banner reached the rafters in PPG Paints Arena, joining those from 1991, 1992, 2009 and 2016, their celebration of winning back-to-back championships was over and the journey toward trying to win three in a row began.

In their opener, the Penguins showed they have some work to do. They were sloppy with the puck at times and in their defensive reads against the rush. But they battled back from down 4-2 in the third period to tie it on goals from Sidney Crosby and Conor Sheary before Alex Pietrangelo won it for the Blues 1:15 into overtime.

 

[RELATED: Blues survive rally by Penguins, win in overtime in opener]

 

"I think we played hard. I didn't think we always played smart," Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. "We gave up a number of chances off the rush. I think we gave up three goals off the rush where we had numbers back. We're not recognizing the threats away from the puck. Sometimes we're over-backchecking. We've got numbers back and we're still giving up quality scoring chances. Those are just details we've got to get better at if we're going to have a chance to win games consistently."

After practice Tuesday, Sullivan declared, "This is a new season. It's a brand-new challenge. We're a new team." 

The new challenge is a difficult one. No team has won the Stanley Cup in three consecutive seasons since the New York Islanders did it four seasons in a row from 1980-83.

But the Penguins' new team looks a lot like the one from the previous two seasons. Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Kris Letang and Matt Murray were among the 12 players in their lineup Wednesday who own rings from 2016 and 2017. 

Some key pieces from their championship core have moved on though.

Video: Penguins raise 2016-17 Stanley Cup banner

Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and left wing Chris Kunitz, who along with Crosby, Malkin and Letang made up the Fab Five that won the Stanley Cup three times with Pittsburgh, were not there to see the new banner raised, but each was cheered loudly when his image appeared in the 2016-17 highlight video played during the pregame ceremony.

Fleury is with the Vegas Golden Knights now after being selected in the NHL Expansion Draft, and Kunitz signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning as an unrestricted free agent. Also gone from last season's team are defensemen Trevor Daley (Detroit Red Wings), Ron Hainsey (Toronto Maple Leafs) and Mark Streit (Montreal Canadiens), and centers Nick Bonino (Predators) and Matt Cullen (Minnesota Wild).

Daley was the only one to make it back for the ring ceremony Monday.

"It's life. It's a business," Malkin said. "We understand that every year we see a different face, a different team."

The Penguins' four new faces -- backup goaltender Antti Niemi, defenseman Matt Hunwick, center Gregg McKegg and right wing Ryan Reaves -- were the first to be introduced during opening night festivities. They received a warm reception from the crowd and then stood on the blue line as the heroes from last season were cheered one by one.

Crosby, the Penguins captain and Conn Smythe Trophy winner as MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs the past two seasons, came out last, bringing the Cup with him. When public address announcer Ryan Mill asked the players to step forward and get closer to the banner before it was raised, the four new Penguins initially remained uncomfortably behind, looking unsure whether they were supposed to participate.

Video: STL@PIT: Crosby hammers home rebound for PPG

Reaves eventually led them forward to join the rest of the group.

"We weren't a part of that last year and that was their special moment, so I don't think we wanted to intrude," McKegg said. "But it was pretty exciting watching that banner go up."

McKegg, who is trying to replace Bonino as the third-line center, did his part Wednesday, winning 13 of 17 draws, putting in some strong work on the penalty kill and setting up Sheary's tying goal from the right circle with 5:20 left in the third with a nice cross-ice pass. Hunwick, who like McKegg was signed as unrestricted free agent July 1, struggled at times, but he wasn't the only one. 

Even more than last season, when they returned almost all of their 2016 Stanley Cup team, the Penguins will be a work in progress with more new faces potentially being added to the mix before the playoffs begin in April. 

General manager Jim Rutherford has been good each of the past two seasons at determining weaknesses and finding replacements, and he likely will seek to do the same this season.

Video: Pens players, fans recount Cup glory as banner raises

Bonino, Daley and Carl Hagelin turned out to be key in-season additions in 2015-16. Last season, he traded for Hainsey and Streit to strengthen the defensive depth.

This season, even after McKegg's solid opener, Rutherford might feel the need to bring in another third-line center.

"I don't think we're any different than any other teams in the League in a sense that we're all a work in progress," Sullivan said. "We're all trying to get better to try to become the best team that we can be when the stakes get high at the end of the season."

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