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Vacation's over for Penguins

by Shawn P. Roarke
STOCKHOLM – Tourist season officially is over for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Tuesday afternoon's scavenger hunt and the uproarious team dinner that followed put "paid" to the fun part of this week-long Scandinavian adventure. Wednesday was time to get down to business and, amazingly, the Penguins were happy to report back to full-time work.

For the Penguins, their business is winning hockey games. The only way to do that is through intense preparation and all-consuming focus. So Wednesday's shrill work whistle, while not greeted with smiles, was begrudgingly accepted. The time to don the hard hats finally had arrived.

"The fun is over," defenseman Hal Gill told as he peeled off his sweat-soaked equipment. "Now we have to have our fun playing hockey and winning some hockey games. The last few days have been real special for us to come together as a team in a fun way, but now it's time to get to work."

Wednesday morning, the Penguins showed up at the Globe Arena – testing the freshly laid ice for the first time – ready to put in the time necessary to prepare for Thursday's exhibition against Jokerit in Helsinki, as well as for the weekend's Bridgestone NHL Premiere 2008 series against Ottawa that kicks off the 2008-09 NHL regular season.

Coach Michel Therrien made sure his charges put their noses to the grindstone during the 90-minute practice. He wanted to see the players respond with regular-season intensity – and was not disappointed with the results.

"We addressed the players before we started practice (today), and that we wanted the focus to be at the right place now," Therrien told "I thought today's practice was important for our team. I thought the tempo was right and the focus was good."

The work rate was impressive during a session that focused extensively on tactics.

Pittsburgh spent the first 20 minutes of the session working on special teams as they attempt to reorganize their man-advantage attack in the wake of Tuesday's announcement that No. 1 defenseman Sergei Gonchar will be out for at least four months after undergoing surgery Wednesday on his dislocated shoulder. 

Later in the practice, the team worked on breaking out of the defensive zone after a faceoff win. Throughout the drills, there was none of the boisterousness that marked the first two practices here. The players were all business, calm and focused on the instructions being parsed out by the coaches.

Forward Janne Pesonen, who joined the team from Finland this season, is trying to cram as much learning in as he can before the season starts. As a result, he was grateful for the opportunity to get in some tactical work.

"It was good to get some work in today," he told "I'm looking forward to the games getting started."

It won't be a long wait.

The Penguins play Finnish power Jokerit Thursday, and Therrien said he will treat it as a regular-season game for the most part. He said he plans to dress 90 percent of his starting lineup and will evenly split the goaltending between starter Marc-Andre Fleury and backup Danny Sabourin.

"We're still in training camp, even if we are here," Therrien said. "We have one more exhibition to play and we still have one more player that we have to send down. There is work to be done."

The Penguins' final cut likely will come sometime close to the 3 p.m. EST Friday deadline to submit rosters for Saturday's game against Ottawa. For the players on the bubble, practices like Wednesday's – as well as Thursday's game – are last-chance opportunities to impress management and make the case that they deserve to be a part of the team that returns to North America on Monday morning.

For the veteran players, Wednesday provided one of the final opportunities to get used to new linemates or new defense partners. It also gave Therrien and his staff the chance to game plan various situations, including how the team will deal with the loss of Gonchar, who played more than 25 minutes a game last season and saw extensive ice time against the top offensive players from opposing teams.

"There's no doubt that's a huge loss," Therrien said of Gonchar. "On the other hand, though, this gives the opportunity for other players to show what they can do. That's always been our philosophy. We'll have a plan in place. We have some different options and we'll come up with a plan to win hockey games.

That plan clearly began today with the application of a little elbow grease from the Penguins players.

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