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by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins

In the past couple months, the Pittsburgh Penguins have become one of NHL’s the most-feared teams.

Free agents Ziggy Palffy, John LeClair, Sergei Gonchar and first-overall pick Sidney Crosby joined a team that featured offensive weapons Mario Lemieux, Mark Recchi, Ryan Malone and Dick Tarnstrom.

Now, opponents in the Atlantic Division are quivering the most. Thanks to the NHL’s new regular-season format, the emphasis is on division rivalries. Teams play eight games against each of their four division rivals (32 total) – up from six games (24 total) in the past.

That means the New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers get more chances to face the revamped Penguins.

“I think it’s going to be great for the game,” Recchi said. “It’s really going to be a fun thing.”

In addition, the new schedule gives fans two more chances to see the Penguins and Flyers battle for Pennsylvania bragging rights.

“Pittsburgh has been down for the past couple years, but we’d like to get back in it. Philly has been tremendous and we want to get to that level,” said Recchi, who spent the past six seasons with the Flyers. “It’s exciting for the fans when you see each other more times per year. We hope to build more rivalries.”

Indeed. The battle for the Atlantic Division title should be intense.

“With the new system, we see teams in our division eight times and those rivalries, if they weren’t in place, will be resurrected,” Flyers captain Keith Primeau said.

Devils goalie Martin Brodeur is eager to play more games against division teams as well as four games against each of the 10 non-division clubs in the Eastern Conference.

“From my standpoint, it’s awesome,” he said. “For so many years, for us in New Jersey (to play a lot of games against West Coast teams) was a waste of time. It was tougher to get up for games and draw the fans. Playing the Rangers, Islanders, Flyers and Penguins more – I think it’s going to bring a lot of interest back to hockey.”

The Penguins will play games against Western Conference teams, though, just not as many as in past seasons. All teams will play 10 interconference games, hosting one game each against all five clubs from a designated division and traveling for one game each against all five teams from a different division. Those assignments rotate annually. This season, Northwest Division teams Colorado, Minnesota, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver come to Pittsburgh, while the Penguins travel to Central Division foes Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago, Nashville and Columbus.

“From the travel standpoint, it’s a lot better for the players,” Primeau said. “From the rivalry standpoint, it’s a lot better for everyone.”

The Penguins open training camp Sept. 13 at Mellon Arena. They begin the regular season Oct. 5 at New Jersey.

“I am extremely excited,” Recchi said.

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