-- Ottawa's Chris Neil says he was ready to play Saturday's Bridgestone NHL Premiere 2008 Stockholm showdown between his Senators and the Pittsburgh Penguins here at the Globe Arena virtually from the first day of training camp.
"There's no switch to flip," he told NHL.com on Friday after the Senators' final preseason practice. "We know that we had to work hard every day. You can't ask a team to flip a switch. You can't take it easy because that's when you get beat."
Neil is the type of player who knows only one gear -- and his engine is always running at full throttle. Other players take a little while longer to get warmed up. Yet there was no doubt every player from each side was champing at the bit to resume regular-season hostilities, which will happen Saturday (2:30 p.m. ET, NHLN, CBC, RIS) in the first game of the two-game Bridgestone NHL Premiere 2008 Stockholm series here between the two teams. The Senators and Penguins will play again Sunday (2:30 p.m., VERSUS, CBC, RDS).
Once the final piece of almost a week-long odyssey of ceremony and sightseeing was dispatched with Friday's open practice sessions at the Globe Arena, all attention was focused on the two points up for grabs in a little more than 24 hours.
"Obviously you want to play for real," Pittsburgh wing Max Talbot said. "We had a nice week here, but now it's for real. Obviously we are not in Pittsburgh and we are not in Ottawa, but it's still a regular-season game."
And with the animosity that has developed between these two clubs in recent seasons, they could play this game virtually anywhere and the players would be raring to get after it.
Last season, the Pittsburgh Penguins swept the Senators, the defending Eastern Conference champions, out of the playoffs in the first round, dominating play throughout the series. But that was merely payback for the first-round hammering the Senators administered to the Penguins two seasons ago.
For that reason, Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien is happy his club is opening against the Senators. He knows his players will be focused from the start, armed with the knowledge that a lack of focus could lead to an ugly -- and unacceptable -- result Saturday.
"We know Ottawa really well," Therrien said. "We played those guys the last two years in the playoffs and it's almost a rivalry when we play that team."
You can throw the "almost" out. These teams don't like each other all that much. Each knows the road to the Stanley Cup Final out of the Eastern Conference likely will have to go through the other team at some point.
"We can't ask for a better situation than to play a team that we have a rivalry with to make sure you are ready," Therrien added.
Daniel Alfredsson has enjoyed the week in his native Sweden more than anybody, spending several days in his hometown of Gothenburg and being honored by his former club team there, Frolunda, in a very moving ceremony.
In fact, he called the four-day stay in Gothenburg a "pretty good ego trip." But the sight of the Penguins, who blitzed his team 16-5 in a four-game smackdown last spring, is more than enough of an incentive to snap out of any residual reverie.
"That won't be a problem," Alfredsson said of regaining his focus for the task at hand. "When I am at the rink, it's about work. That's the way it has to be.
"We know that we want to get off to a really good start against a good team like Pittsburgh. We have a lot of respect for their team. They have guys that can individually win games for you and they are good on defense."
Both teams are loaded with singular talents.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby
has taken all of Scandinavia by storm during his time here. Friday afternoon, 100 or so Swedish children hung over the railings at the Globe, pleading for autographs with a sing-song chant of his name.
It was the same Thursday night in Helsinki when the Penguins dropped in for an exhibition against Jokerit, a game in which Crosby managed three assists.
Therrien said such a reaction has become common wherever his captain goes and asks why Stockholm should be any different.
"We know Ottawa really well. We played those guys the last two years in the playoffs and it's almost a rivalry when we play that team." - Michel Therrien
"He attracts a lot of people in North America, and with the new technology out there and the Internet, I'm not surprised at all that there is a big interest in him in Sweden," Therrien said. "He's the face of the NHL and he's a great role model."
But he is not the only star on display this weekend in Sweden's capital.
The Penguins also have Evgeni Malkin
, the Russian center who appears ready to have his biggest season yet and who has stepped into more of a leadership role with the team, a maturation that was reflected by his being named Thursday an alternate captain for Saturday's game.
Pittsburgh also has young goalie Marc-Andre Fleury
, who is poised to become a top-tier goalie after backstopping the Penguins to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Ottawa counters with a talented trio that does not have to take a back seat to anyone.
"We know that we want to get off to a really good start against a good team like Pittsburgh. We have a lot of respect for their team. They have guys that can individually win games for you and they are good on defense." - Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson
Alfredsson, a national hero in Sweden, likely will play on the first line this weekend because of injury concerns to Mike Fischer. That means he will be reunited with center Jason Spezza and high-scoring forward Dany Heatley. Combined, those three players put up 115 goals during the 2007-08 season.
The fans filing into Stockholm from all over Europe and North America in the past few days that will pack Globe Arena for Saturday's extravaganza will witness a game that won't soon be forgotten in these parts.
For the players, it won't matter that they will be skating onto a foreign ice surface -- figuratively and literally -- or that the fans will be cheering in a different language. One team will have a logo of a Penguin on its uniform and the other will boast the head of a Roman general and that can mean just one thing: Time to get back to business.
Author: Shawn P. Roarke | NHL.com Managing Editor