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Pens just want to have fun - and do

by Shawn P. Roarke /
RALEIGH, N.C. -- If you have to work on a holiday, you might as well have fun.

That was certainly the mindset of the Pittsburgh Penguins Monday, which is Memorial Day here in the United States. So while most Raleigh residents prayed the approaching rain did not wreak too much havoc with barbecue plans, the Penguins reported for duty at the RBC Center, working -- and laughing -- throughout a crisp 45-minute practice.

"This is a good time of the year to be playing hockey," Pittsburgh forward Chris Kunitz said after Monday's practice.

In the NHL, making it to Memorial Day means you are that much closer to your dream of winning the Stanley Cup. For these Penguins, they know that one more victory against Carolina in the Eastern Conference Finals will deliver them to the Stanley Cup Final for the second-straight year.

The first of four chances to claim that fourth victory comes Tuesday in Game 4 at the RBC Center (7:30 p.m. ET, VERSUS, CBC, RDS). Win and the Penguins can go home as Eastern Conference champions. Lose and they have to go home, wait two days for Game 5, and constantly fight the doubts that arise every time you lose in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"If we can have a good start, we can really crush a lot of the hope that they do have," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "Get it in their heads early that maybe they don't have a chance.
"I don't think anyone's looking too far ahead.  Everyone's just been talking about Game 4 here."

Maybe that is why the focus was so sharp Monday. But there is no denying that the wiggle room the Pens now have after winning the first three games of this best-of-7 series also allowed Pittsburgh to be a little bit loose for Monday's practice. 

"We executed well, we went out and got some things done," Kunitz said. "We're allowed to have some fun.  If you are not executing, the coaches will lay down the law a little bit more."

Bylsma saw no need to put the hammer down Monday. Quite the opposite, he took part in some of the fun.

At one point, all 20 skaters were around the crease of Marc-Andre Fleury, trying to jam a puck past the goalie. Fleury, having seen enough, gloved the puck and threw it into the stands.

Suddenly the players were yelling at a couple reporters to get the puck and return it to the ice surface. Once the puck was located and returned to action, the Pittsburgh skaters were dismayed to find Fleury had found help, conscripting backup goalie Mathieu Garon to join him in the crease.

Suddenly, Fleury and Garon were side-by-side on the goal line, turning away rebound attempt after rebound attempt. But even there, was a lesson, said Fleury.

"Coach is always telling the guys to drive to the net," he said, chuckling.

Later in practice, the team had a shootout competition in which a player had to keep shooting until he scored. The competition continues until one player is remaining. Throughout the competition, Fleury playfully taunted the players against which he made saves. Those that scored jumped against the glass or did pump-fist celebrations.

But as soon as practice was complete and the players walked off the ice -- laughing and smiling as they trudged to the vistors' dressing room -- the fun was over.

Now, it was time to once again put all thoughts toward Game 4. Bylsma is pretty confident that his team will have the proper focus when the puck drops for that contest.

"Every coach has a lot of thoughts go through their brain and contemplates what their team needs in terms of focus on the game, and focus for the game plan. We certainly know the situation we're in, being up 3-0. We also know we haven't won four games. This is a race to four, and we still have more work to do to get there.

"We're not there yet. We still have work to do. And, we're good about being focused today on what we needed to do."    

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