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Stanley Cup rematch — or preview?

Forget Marian Hossa.

"We're way past that," center Sidney Crosby said Monday.

Indeed.

The real story line heading into a Stanley Cup final rematch between Crosby's Penguins and the defending champion Detroit Red Wings tonight at Joe Louis Arena has nothing to do with a former teammate that defenseman Brooks Orpik jokingly called "What's His Name."

Nope, tonight is all about two fairly fine hockey clubs, each of which has shown this season they belong in conversations concerning current Cup contenders.

"We had a great battle last year; it's going to be fun," Red Wings center Henrik Zetterberg said. "(The Penguins are) a good team. ... It was a great final."

There is no reason to believe that might not again be the case.

The Red Wings began yesterday with 20 points, a 9-2-2 record that rated third in the NHL, and looking every bit a solid bet to defend the Cup.

As for the Penguins, well, at 8-4-2 they're off to the franchise's best start since 1995, when they opened 8-3-3 through 14 games.

"I don't think anybody was aware of that," Orpik said. "To be honest, we're on, I don't want to say a roll right now, but we've put three (wins) together and the general feeling is that we've (blown) a handful of games already.

"Our record should probably be a little better than what it is."

The Penguins could own 22 points, but they've earned only two of six possible points in games they entered the third period with a lead.

However, they remain close to the Atlantic Division- and Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers, on whom they have four games in-hand.

"You look at the record and you've got to be satisfied. ... We're on the right track right now," coach Michel Therrien said. "One thing we addressed with the players from Day 1 in training camp was having a good start. We haven't had a great start, but it's a good start."

It's a better start than they've had in each of Therrien's previous two seasons. The Penguins were 7-6-1 and 7-5-2 through 14 games in each of the previous two campaigns -- and those were played under considerably better circumstances.

As Therrien reminded yesterday, the Penguins are without their top two defensemen, Sergei Gonchar (left shoulder) and Ryan Whitney (left foot). Whitney appeared visibly frustrated prior to practice after an individual skating session lasted less than two minutes.

Those injuries aside, there is the not-so-small point that the Penguins replaced six forwards, including Hossa, from their Cup finalist squad, and they've received only seven goals - or six few than Chicago's Patrick Sharp - from superstar centers Sidney Crosby (3) and Evgeni Malkin (4).

Still ...

"We're playing good hockey," Crosby said. "We're getting big plays. That's the difference. We've just got to stay on pace here and approach each game the same way.

"You can't get caught up with your record. It's always going to reflect the team no matter what. Our team has always been deep and prided itself on playing together. Everyone has stepped up when they've had to, and that's the sign of a good hockey team."

The hockey team holding the Stanley Cup knows the Penguins remain a viable challenger.

"There was some serious turnover, but they're still a pretty good team," said Red Wings goalie Ty Conklin, the Penguins' backup last season to starter Marc-Andre Fleury. "I certainly wouldn't bet against that group, the guys in that locker room that I know. A lot of real high character guys in there.

"I wouldn't bet against them."

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