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Countdown to Opener

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins
It’s New Year’s Eve right now for the Penguins.

In a little over 24 hours (depending on when you read this), the Penguins will open the 2011-12 season in a contest with the defending Western Conference champion Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena Thursday night at 10 p.m. EST.

And just as New Year’s Day represents a new beginning and fresh start, so too does the season opener.

“We’ve all left training camp right now and none of us have played a regular-season game. We all haven’t won or lost a game,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “We’re starting Game 1 on the road against a pretty good hockey team. That starts (Thursday) and that’s a heck of a lot different than training camp. So it will be a good test.”

“It seems like we had a bit of a longer summer than we’ve been used to having the past couple years,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. “But I’m just excited to be back at it and play some hockey.”

One player in particular that is looking forward to Thursday night’s puck drop is center Evgeni Malkin.

Malkin hasn’t played an NHL regular-season game since Feb. 4 against Buffalo. In that game he suffered season-ending ligament damage in his right knee. Malkin has spent the entire summer rehabbing and entered training camp healthy and motivated.

“I’m happy because it’s been a long time not playing,” he said. “The season opener has finally come. We have a great team and I’m excited.

“I have great motivation. I haven’t played for a long time. I know how I can play. It’s tough, but I had a great summer and worked hard. I played four preseason games. I’m ready.”

One player who might not be ready is defenseman Brooks Orpik. The Penguins’ hard-hitting blueliner had lower abdominal/hernia surgery for the second straight offseason (this summer was on his right side, last year was on his left side).

Orpik resumed regular practice with his teammates last Saturday (Oct. 1), but couldn’t say either way whether or not he’ll be in the lineup for the season opener.

“It’s kind of up to (the coaches), really. I’m kind of just going day-by-day, seeing how it reacts to a couple hard practices,” Orpik said. “I haven’t really had that much practice time and I didn’t play in any preseason games, so it’s definitely a little catch-up. As much as you hear some guys complaining about preseason games, you’ve got to get a few in just to get used to that speed. Because no matter how ready you think you are, it’s tough to simulate that speed in practice.”

The Penguins will have their hands full when they take on the Canucks, a team that came up one game short of winning the Stanley Cup a few months ago. But Pittsburgh is looking forward to the challenge.

“I think for us, these are always fun games and a good challenge to see where we’re at right now and what we’re starting the season with,” Fleury said. “They’re a good team, so it will be fun to see that and play the game (Thursday).”
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