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Pens, fans pumped for first practice in new arena

by Sergei J. Feldman /
The start of training camp is always an exciting event in Pittsburgh. But this time there's some extra buzz -- this year's camp opened in the Penguins' new home, the Consol Energy Center.

As excited as the fans were -- some lined up in the early hours of the morning to attend Day 1 of the free-to-the-public event -- the players were equally as pumped.

"It's great. I don't think there's a bad seat in the house," newcomer Mike Comrie said before taking the ice for his group's first practice session. "I know this is a sports-oriented community. Playing in the past against the Penguins, I know how loud it can be. I'm excited to hear how loud it'll be. They've done a great job."

The freshness of the arena and all the new, state-of-the-art amenities – a big change from Mellon Arena, the NHL's oldest building -- just added to the motivation to get the season under way.

"I think all the guys are excited to start playing in the new building," defenseman Kris Letang said. "It's just amazing what they've done with this thing. I can't wait to get started."

Waiting happened to have been the theme of the dressing room banter with media, as most every player brought up coping with a longer-than-usual offseason. After back-to-back appearances in the Stanley Cup Final in 2008 and 2009, the Penguins were upset in the second round of last spring's playoffs by the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens.

While disappointing, the early ouster left the Penguins with plenty of time to reflect, refocus and regroup. The long summer was frustrating – but there was a therapeutic element involved.

"It's good to realize that it's tough to go to the Finals every year," captain Sidney Crosby said. "To go back to back like we did, it wasn't easy. It took a lot of hard work and determination. But we went through it, a lot of us, together and know that's where we want to be."

The process of getting back to the top began with a handful of new faces.

Solid two-way defenseman, Zbynek Michalek, brought in on July 1 after signing a five-year deal with the Penguins, pointed to coach Dan Bylsma's up-tempo system and a potentially dangerous defensive unit, which includes Brooks Orpik, Alex Goligoski, Letang and another newcomer, Paul Martin, as the enticing factors that lured him to Pittsburgh.

Comrie, a skillful forward who can play center or either wing, shared a similar sentiment.

"Coming in here, I knew it was a young nucleus and guys who have had great success at this level," he said. "It's a close-knit team. I think if I just try to come in and work hard, fit in and make some plays with these guys, good things will happen."

"The team has had success in recent years and has a great group of leaders. And the coaching staff coaches with a system that caters to what the players bring. That's a great recipe."

Forward Arron Asham, the most recent signee, has tasted the bitter end of that great recipe quite a few times as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers, arguably the Penguins' biggest rivals.
After advancing to the Final before losing with the Flyers last spring, Asham still has a sour taste in his mouth. He felt his greatest chance to taste success was with Pittsburgh.

"They've got a lot of skilled players and a great supporting cast," he said. "I want to get back [to the Finals] and win a Stanley Cup in my career. I thought my best chance of doing that was here. Now that I am, I'm going to do everything I can to bring a championship here. "

The Penguins will be shorthanded as they start their pursuit of another championship. The team announced this week that second-line center Jordan Staal would miss five to six weeks due to a foot infection.
Plans were set in motion to move 2008-09 Art Ross and Conn Smythe winner Evgeni Malkin to right wing alongside Staal. That plan will go on the back burner for the next few weeks, but Staal's absence will allow other players to step up their game.

That's just part of the intrigue that is training camp. How things shape up cannot be known, but the competition will only intensify.

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