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– Young legs, it seems, can indeed overcome tired minds.
The Pittsburgh Penguins arrived here for their first practice Sunday afternoon, the strain of a long night's travel evident in weary legs and bloodshot eyes as they ambled out onto the ice surface at Hovet Arena.
The Penguins chartered to Sweden Saturday night, arriving here at approximately 8 a.m. Sunday. Six short hours later, after dropping off luggage and a quick meal at the team hotel, the Penguins were in the midst of an on-ice session as they begin preparations for Bridgestone NHL Premiere 2008, a two-game showdown against the Ottawa Senators next weekend that kicks off the League's 2008-09 regular season.
As difficult as it was to lace up the skates and get on the ice, the players knew it was a necessity.
"It wasn't too bad," Sidney Crosby said. "It was good to get out there and get some work in. A lot of us have been in this situation before and we know what has to be done. You just have to get moving a little bit."
And that is just what Pittsburgh did. Coach Michel Therrien did not take the ice as he continued to nurse a rib injury suffered during training camp, but the 25 players on this trip did, playing two spirited 4-on-4 games before doing some individual work.
Unlike Crosby, who has made trips to Europe to play for Team Canada, Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi is making his first trip across the Atlantic. He is still getting acclimated to the process.
"It's a big time difference," said Scuderi, noting that Sweden is six hours ahead of Pittsburgh. "It was a little difficult to get started today, but once we got going it was OK."
In fact, it was better than OK. At times, Sunday's session looked like a regular-season practice and the players were taking the scrimmage very seriously, arguing about the legitimacy of a few goals and jockeying opposing players from the bench.
Crosby's Team Black won both games -- taking the first with a come-from-behind 5-4 victory and then salting away the rematch by a 3-1 count.
Even after the 4-on-4 portion was done, most of the players hung around on the ice, working on individual drills or taking shots on the team's three goalies. At one point, Crosby, Matt Cooke and Max Talbot were stringing passes together and then peppering starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury with shots.
By the time the last puck was fired, the Pens had spent more than an hour on the ice and were laughing and kidding around like they were back at their practice facility in Pittsburgh, more than 4,000 miles away.
"We have a fun team," said Fleury, slumped in the dressing room and paying for his on-ice exuberance. "We have lots of young guys on this team and we like to play the game, so that's what happens."
For Fleury, the practice may well be the last productive thing he does on his first day in Stockholm.
“We're going back to the hotel and grabbing some dinner and I think that's it for today," he said. "I'm sure by tomorrow everyone is going to feel more rested and ready to go."
As new and exciting as everything was for the players today, it is important that the players remember they are not here as tourists, but as professionals with a clear goal in mind. Pittsburgh wants to open the season with two wins and make an emphatic statement that the march they made to the Eastern Conference title in 2007-08 was just a taste of what is to come.
That's why they have to get their body clocks reset and begin a final week of preparation – including an exhibition game against Finnish club Jokerit in Helsinki on Thursday – to be ready for the challenge of facing the rival Senators Saturday in the season opener.
As usual, it was Crosby that made sure the message was delivered loud and clear.
"We want to enjoy ourselves, but we want to work hard here and come into the games this weekend with the right mindset," Crosby said. "This is a good experience for us, for sure. But, at the same time, it's not going to be an exhibition game (against Ottawa), so we have to remain focused."
That focus began to take shape Sunday as youthful legs trumped an unwilling mind. It should only sharpen as the week progresses here.
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Author: Shawn P. Roarke | NHL.com Managing Editor