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Whiz-kids Penguins try to stand up to experienced Rangers @NHLdotcom

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Jaromir Jagr was winning Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh when current Penguins star Sidney Crosby wasn't Sid the Kid, but Sid the Infant. Brendan Shanahan won them when Evgeni Malkin was in a Russian grade school.

Scott Gomez has as many championship rings (two) as Penguins veterans Gary Roberts and Petr Sykora do in 34 seasons between them.

In an intriguing Eastern Conference semifinals playoff matchup that begins Friday night, it's the Penguins' stunning talent vs. the New York Rangers' experience, guile and intangibles.

The Penguins possess the young stars, the Rangers the old ones. Each has a get-under-the-skin agitator capable of crossing the line that separates nasty from downright dirty. The teams know each other well from eight regular-season games, and they'll likely get to know each other much, much better over the next two weeks.

"This is going to be a great seven-game series," said Penguins defenseman Ryan Whitney, who seems certain it will take that long to decide a winner.

The Penguins are coming off a first-round sweep of Ottawa and, with the 20-year-old Crosby and the 21-year-old Malkin, might own the best center combination on a Stanley Cup challenger since the Oilers' days with Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier.

They also might be the NHL's best tandem since, well, Mario Lemieux and Jagr in Pittsburgh, with Crosby winning the scoring title last season and Malkin coming in second to Alex Ovechkin this season.

"It's going to be a big challenge. You can't take a break with this offense.... The guy (Crosby) is the best in the world," Gomez said Thursday. "He is great for our league. Everyone talks about LeBron James, and we've got someone like that in our league."

The difference, of course, is the Penguins' young 'uns aren't old enough to remember Lemieux and Jagr winning Cups with Pittsburgh in 1991 and 1992. These Penguins have never been to second round until now, while Jagr, Gomez and Shanahan get there spring after spring.

"I was pretty young when he was here," Crosby said of Jagr, the second-leading scorer in Penguins history to Lemieux. "I remember those two together and I remember how much they dominated and how he (Jagr) was always on the highlight reel with goals."

Still can be, too. Jagr had two goals and six assists during the Rangers' five-game elimination of New Jersey, and two goals and five assists as the Rangers won five of eight from Pittsburgh during the season.

"He looked pretty good in that Jersey series," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said.

Talent? Edge, Penguins, despite the presence of Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who outplayed three-time Cup winner Martin Brodeur in the previous round. Experience? Big edge, Rangers.

"They've got young players, a lot younger than us," Jagr said. "I would rather play somebody who played seven games."

The Penguins looked far more playoff savvy while taking apart Ottawa than they did in losing to the Senators in five games last spring, and coach Michel Therrien isn't surprised with the rapid maturation.

"We're more prepared this year for the playoffs," he said. "Last year, our young guys, that was our first experience. We understand this is going to be a new step and a new challenge, but we're ready for that challenge."

Are they ready for this? Even the 36-year-old Jagr is curious to see if they are.

Back when he was hockey's kid star, a 20-year-old who rallied the Penguins past the wily Rangers after Lemieux was injured during a memorable 1992 playoff series, Jagr said a single player could dominate a series.

Now, he said, with teams' third lines as skilled and proficient as some of the top lines back then, it's much harder for one or two players to dictate.

"With all due respect for Crosby and Malkin, I don't think they are Mario Lemieux," Jagr said. "I'm saying all the respect to them, but it's because the game has changed. ... The gap between Mario and the rest of the guys when I was in Pittsburgh was so huge. ... I don't think these kids are able to do it. Maybe I'm wrong."

For all the goal scorers, the series may come down to goaltending.

Lundqvist is a Vezina Trophy finalist who is as good as anyone in the NHL when he's on. Yet the Penguins' Marc-Andre Fleury has lost only twice in regulation in his last 21 decisions.

The numbers don't offer up many clues. The Penguins have won 10 in a row at home, but are 0-3-1 in Madison Square Garden. The Rangers have only three regulation losses in their last 30 games, but needed to go to overtime for their only win in Pittsburgh all season.

Then there's the agitation angle. Rangers pest Sean Avery's face-guarding tactics against Brodeur resulted in an immediate rewriting of the rulebook and so irritated the Devils' goalie, Brodeur wouldn't shake Avery's hand.

Pittsburgh's Jarkko Ruutu isn't always a by-the-book defender, either, nearly knocking out Jagr with an elbow-up hit during a 2006 Olympics game.

Therrien knows Avery will try to be in Fleury's face, too - he just wants it to be legal.

"We hope the referees will protect the goalie, that's supposed to be done and we expect that will be done," Therrien said. "We know they played hard on Martin Brodeur. Was it all the time fair? I'm not so sure. But, in the meantime, it can work both ways, you know, it can work both ways."

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