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Pens loose, relaxed as Cup finals begin @NHLdotcom

PITTSBURGH (AP) -Yeah, hockey's version of Kids "R" Us, the Pittsburgh Penguins, certainly is reeling under the pressure of the Stanley Cup finals.

Sidney Crosby is joking about Gary Roberts' 42nd birthday, which is only 22 birthdays more than Crosby has celebrated. A few minutes before, Crosby and Evgeni Malkin battled playfully for the puck near the side of the net during practice, neither star wanting to be outdone by the other.

Coach Michel Therrien picks up a stick and tries to steer a shot past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, something the Senators, Rangers and Flyers couldn't do with regularity during the Eastern Conference playoffs.

The Penguins begin their first Stanley Cup finals in 16 years Saturday night in Detroit, against a proud, experienced and deep Red Wings team that is going for its fourth Cup in 11 seasons.

If the Penguins are awed by their opponent, the situation or the circumstances, they're not showing it. Nor are they showing their age, not with eight players who are 25 or younger compared to the nine Red Wings who are 35 or older.

"I don't feel that group's nervous because we're well prepared," Therrien said Friday. "I feel that group has a lot of excitement. It's the same thing for the coaches; I'm not nervous. We can't wait to start. We're ready to play."

Sure, the Red Wings have playoff-hardened players who were winning Cups before Penguins players such as Crosby, the 21-year-old Malkin and 19-year-old Jordan Staal were born. So give the Red Wings the edge in experience, the Penguins the advantage in exuberance.

"This is not a group that's too nervous, this is not a group that feels pressure," Therrien said. "There's two ways to handle the pressure, I believe: You feel the pressure or you put the pressure on. That's our philosophy: You put the pressure on, by the way we're playing."

To do that, the Penguins want to force the Red Wings - a team with stars aplenty in Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk - to adjust and adapt to their speed and talent, and not the other way around.

Sounds like a cheeky approach by a team that is only two years removed from being the worst in the Eastern Conference, but the Penguins adopted the theme during all of their pre-finals practices.

It's all about us, the Penguins said repeatedly, not about the Red Wings.

"We play our game, they do whatever they do," forward Jarkko Ruutu said. "There's no reason to change things. They may change but we don't worry about their system too much. We're not going to match things to the way they play."

Nor that experience doesn't have its advantages.

When it was suggested the Penguins might do something playful to celebrate tough guy Roberts' birthday on Friday, Crosby responded with a look that suggested, "Are you kidding me?"

"I don't think there will be any pranks," Crosby said, with a tone of reverence. "He's been in the league a while so I don't think he's going to get any of that."

Not that Crosby couldn't kid about the matter.

Asked again how the Penguins might honor the occasion, Crosby pondered the question before saying, "Aw, what would Gary Roberts do?" - a playful reference to the many pro-Roberts signs inside Mellon Arena.

That Sid, what a kidder.

Maybe the Penguins' tone and tenor will change once they step inside Joe Louis Arena, which they haven't visited since a 3-1 loss on Dec. 12, 2005, during Crosby's rookie season.

Or maybe Therrien doesn't want them to adjust, hoping his players - only six of whom have been in a finals - never get caught up in where they are or how close they are to winning the Stanley Cup.

"We can't control the fact (the Red Wings are more experienced)," Crosby said. "We've gotten here and I don't think we want to let age or anything else change the way we play or the way we think about our opponent. They're a great team, no doubt, but we have a lot of confidence in our group, whether we're young or older or whatever."

Red Wings coach Mike Babcock knows others will dispute the notion that experience doesn't matter in a series in which a single mental error, a failed adjustment or a misread on the ice can decide the Cup.

"When you have no experience, you say it's overrated," Babcock said. "When you have it, you say it's the best in the world. Experience is supposed to give you poise and confidence. I'll tell you after the series if it's true."


AP Sports Writer Larry Lage in Detroit contributed to this report.

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