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The Boys of Winter return: But challenges await

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Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Pittsburgh Penguins fans will welcome Saturday's season opener in Philadelphia as surely as local restaurants, bars and hotels deprived of hockey-related business will welcome Wednesday's home opener. But this season shortened by a 113-day lockout poses stiff on- and off-ice challenges for both the Pens and the National Hockey League.

With superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both finally healthy, the Penguins are Las Vegas bookmakers' Stanley Cup favorite. The team has tried to soothe hard feelings over the protracted labor dispute. Penguins ownership apologized publicly, admitted fans free to this week's practices and scrimmage, and is offering discounts and freebies on merchandise and concessions during early home games.

A strong draw leaguewide, the Pens must do well enough in the compressed 48-game regular season to make the playoffs, then avoid another disappointing first-round exit — for the sake of both their fans and NHL TV ratings.

Meanwhile, the team must adjust its business and financial plans for this short season, yet maintain the capacity to re-sign Malkin and top defenseman Kris Letang, who can become unrestricted free agents in July 2014.

With the Penguins' outlook among the brightest of any NHL team, their fans are fortunate indeed. Still, the lockout didn't help the NHL in its long struggle to win over fans in less hockey-crazed markets — and all concerned must hope that self-inflicted setback never will be repeated.

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