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by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins

Now, it counts.

The Pittsburgh Penguins welcome the return of NHL hockey around the country Wednesday night when they travel to New Jersey to take on the Devils at 7:30 p.m.

While the NHL offers a new look this year on the ice with rules to encourage offense and off the ice with a restructured financial landscape, the Penguins have a different appearance as well. The face of the team has changed dramatically since the last time it played a regular season game April 4, 2004, against the Washington Capitals. An influx of new talent permeates the Penguins roster in super-prospect Sidney Crosby and veterans Mark Recchi, Sergei Gonchar, Ziggy Palffy, John LeClair, Jocelyn Thibault, Andre Roy, Lyle Odelein and Steve Poapst.

Instead of rebuilding, the Penguins are contending this year.

“It’s exciting,” Penguins coach Eddie Olczyk said. “Hopefully the players realize the opportunity and the excitement level that comes from the organization, from the leadership starting right at the top with Mario (Lemieux) and filtering down right to the coaching staff. There’s no other place in the world I’d rather be than in this position. We feel we’ve done a lot of good things and it comes down to building chemistry and a foundation for exactly where we want to get to.”

After burying the Washington Capitals, 7-1, to close out the preseason slate Sunday night, the Penguins have found plenty of chemistry especially in the team’s top line of Mario Lemieux, Ryan Malone and Ziggy Palffy. That trio produced nine points on Sunday.

“We’re finding each other,” said Lemieux, who finished the preseason with 11 points in four games. “Ziggy is a great player. If you look at his stats over the years, he knows how to play the game and how to put the puck in the net. Ryan is a great young player. He’s always on the puck, reads the play well and can make plays. Anytime you have three guys on the ice that can get the puck and make plays, you’re going to be successful.”

Malone joined the top line little over a week ago. He has found immediate success.

“For me, I just try to keep it simple and work hard and give the puck to those guys,” he said. “Those guys are pretty nice together. Hopefully, we’ll just get better as we go.”

Palffy has been on Lemieux’s line since the start of training camp. He is a vital part of the team’s top power-play unit as well.

“We’re going to get a lot of chances,” he said. “We’ll win a lot of games because we’ll get chances on the power play. We’re ready to play for the regular season.”

Likewise, Lemieux, is eager to open the regular season. Wednesday’s game will be his first regular season contest since Nov. 1, 2003, when he left a game vs. Boston with a hip injury. He missed the remaining 72 games of last season.

“It’s been a long training camp – only three weeks, but it’s been long in some ways. I think everybody is anxious to get going here and start Wednesday,” he said. “I feel pretty decent. My back and hip have been pretty good the last few weeks. I have been doing a lot of work.”

Olczyk is not only pleased with his top two lines of Lemieux, Malone and Palffy and LeClair, Crosby and Recchi, but his third and fourth lines of Matt Murley, Lasse Pirjeta and Konstantin Koltsov and Rico Fata, Maxime Talbot, Ryan VandenBussche and Andre Roy as well.

“They bring a lot of energy, a lot of keeping it simple and putting pressure on the puck,” he said. “A lot of energy – that’s what you need out of your third and fourth lines.”

Olczyk was glad to see his team close out the preseason in convincing fashion.

“It was a good way to go in. We’re ready to go,” he said. “This is what we’ve trained for and prepared for and we’re ready to go.”

In addition, four players who were among the team’s final cuts – Matt Hussey, Michel Ouellet, Tomas Surovy and Colby Armstrong – all cleared waivers and are in camp at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.


FORWARDS (14): Sidney Crosby, Shane Endicott*, Rico Fata, Konstantin Koltsov, John LeClair, Mario Lemieux, Ryan Malone, Matt Murley, Ziggy Palffy, Lasse Pirjeta, Mark Recchi, Andre Roy, Maxime Talbot, Ryan VandenBussche

DEFENSEMEN (8): Sergei Gonchar, Ric Jackman, Josef Melichar, Lyle Odelein, Brooks Orpik, Steve Poapst, Rob Scuderi, Dick Tarnstrom

GOALTENDERS (2): Sebastien Caron and Jocelyn Thibault.

*Endicott is on injured reserve with an ankle injury.

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