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Pens, Therrien finally on same page

The joke making the rounds at the Penguins' pre-training camp golf outing Monday was that something must be wrong.

Why else would coach Michael Therrien be smiling?

That's a side of Iron Mike his players don't often see, but as Season 4 of the Therrien Era gets set to commence (Season 4 counting his 51-game relief stint behind the bench in 2005-06), a truce of sorts has seemingly been achieved.

The players have come to accept Therrien's tough-guy methods as a means to an end.

And Therrien has apparently eased up just a bit on the tough love, either because he sensed that he needed to or because in the second half of last season and in the playoffs, there just wasn't that much to complain about.

The Penguins' coach-player relationship works well enough that the standard speculation about how long Therrien will last doesn't apply this time.

These Penguins know who they are, where they want to go and how they intend to get there.

The rabbit they'll be chasing is the same one they gamely stalked in last season's Stanley Cup final.

The Detroit Red Wings remain the standard, in part because of their array of talent but mostly because of the way that talent has committed to playing its system and the consistency that's been achieved as a result.

The Red Wings employ not only some of the best players in the world but some of the most committed.

The good news entering 2008-09 is the Penguins do, too.

They've had their share of world-class players more often than not since the mid-to-late 1980s. But in good times or bad there was always a country-club atmosphere permeating the operation in the years that Mario Lemieux wore a sweater. Sometimes the Penguins won in spite of that. Other times, they couldn't overcome it.

But in the new NHL, with the balance that's been achieved in the salary-cap/free-agency era, structure and discipline have become as significant as speed and play-making.

The Penguins lacked all of the above when Therrien took over, and he was more than willing to break as many eggs as necessary while attempting to turn the inherited residue into an omelet.

The transition wasn't what you would call smooth, but the results have made the bumpy ride worthwhile.

The Penguins began accepting Therrien's system-first approach in the second half of 2006-07.

And they became really good at playing it on a nightly basis late in 2007-08, to the extent that they now resemble the Red Wings team they pushed to six games with the Cup at stake last spring, the last four of which were decided by just one goal.

The Pens will attempt to take the final step this season operating under a dynamic of mutual understanding.

The players realize Therrien's methods are ultimately designed, not to belittle them but to make them better players and the Penguins a better team.

And Therrien is more convinced than ever that the players care.

No wonder he succumbed to those out-of-character smiles Monday.

Based on the potential of this year's bunch, the act could become habit-forming.

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