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It's all gravy for Pens

Picture the Penguins' playoff series against the Ottawa Senators as a 200-yard dash.

Now, picture the Senators crouched at the starting line in winter clothes, each man tethered to a half-ton boulder.

Picture the Penguins standing there in gym shorts and tank tops, eagerly awaiting the pistol.

There couldn't be a matchup pitting teams of more dissimilar emotional mind-sets.

Ottawa has to win. If it doesn't make a lengthy run, heads could roll. A 10th consecutive postseason plunge will go over about as well in that city as a scoreboard tribute to Alexander Daigle (the guy the Senators took with the first pick in 1993, just before Hartford took Chris Pronger).

The Penguins badly want to win and would no doubt spit at the notion their season is a success no matter what, but that's the truth: It's all gravy from here.

The players aren't thinking that, of course. Nor should they. The fans aren't thinking that, either. They'd be disappointed if the season ends with anything less than a Stanley Cup, but the pain would ease soon enough because the promise is so great.

Look at what has transpired already. This team made a one-year improvement nearly unmatched in NHL history and is headed for its first playoff appearance since 2001 with one of the more imposing collections of young talent the league has ever seen.

Meanwhile, the franchise satisfied its seven-year quest for a new arena, securing the team's future here.

That's a pretty good season.

Paradoxically, the lack of pressure might be exactly what propels the Penguins past the tortured Senators and deep into the playoffs.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, a quick recap of a regular season worth remembering. The Penguins handed out their awards Saturday, before playing the New York Rangers.

A few of ours:

I'll Show You Award: Maxime Talbot. Cut in training camp, Talbot returned Oct. 24 and played like the Tasmanian Devil on every shift thereafter.

Rented Mule Award: Erik Christensen. The Penguins' turnaround coincided with their improved performance in shootouts. Christensen led the way, degrading goaltenders regularly.

I Need (Bleepin') Goals Award: Michel Therrien yelled those words - with a different word for "bleepin'" - during a practice Dec. 8 in Atlanta. The Penguins hadn't scored more than three goals in their previous eight games. They scored 24 in the next four.

Underrated Player: Michel Ouellet. All he did was finish fourth among the team's forwards in scoring.

Biggest Surprise: Jordan Staal.

Biggest Break: Evgeni Malkin's shoulder injury in camp could have been a season-wrecker. Instead, it allowed Staal to show his stuff - and Malkin missed only four games.

Fathers Know Best Award: Therrien. The January surge began when GM Ray Shero invited the players' fathers on a road trip. Therrien played Ronald Petrovicky and Jocelyn Thibault against Phoenix specifically because their fathers had traveled to see them. Petrovicky scored his first goal of the season in an 8-2 win.

The Three Best Goals (Feel free to drop a line if you disagree, and, yes, we remember Sidney Crosby's preposterous backhander against Phoenix):

3. Cirque du Salei. Crosby crashes through Panthers defenseman Jay Bouwmeester and Ruslan Salei and scores as he's falling to the ice.

2. Whiteout. Evgeni Malkin splits Devils D-men Brad Lukowich and Colin White, and, as Lukowich slashes him to pieces, fools Martin Brodeur with a Lemieux-like move, forehand-to-backhand.

1. Lightning struck. Sliding full-speed on his side, Crosby tips a Mark Recchi pass into the net against Tampa Bay. He later tells FSN Pittsburgh it was his best goal of the year.

Who could argue?

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