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Kovacevic: Penguins push that boulder anew

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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby skates during the first day of training camp Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By Dejan Kovacevic
Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013, 11:06 p.m.
 

On one sizzling sequence in the opening scrimmage of the Penguins' training camp Thursday morning, Sidney Crosby swept behind the opposing net, spun out on his backhand and saucered a pass to Pascal Dupuis for the prettiest of tap-ins.

Meant nothing.

Marc-Andre Fleury was leaking in goals left and right, four on the first five shots he faced. One of them was, of all ghastly concoctions, a Tanner Glass slap shot from atop the left circle that Fleury errantly banged back into the net with his blocker.

Also meant nothing. Zip.

In fact, I hate to say this, but that felt like the overriding theme of the day at Consol Energy Center: None of what we're seeing now means anything.

Nor will it when the real puck drops in three weeks against the Devils.

Nor will it all through the long, cold winter.

Nor will it even in the first couple rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

For real, that's the critical mass this forever star-crossed franchise has found in the aftermath of the four-game, two-goal sweep by the Bruins in last season's Eastern Conference final, where only two viable outcomes exist:

1. Cup

2. Absolute Armageddon

“Maybe. But that's OK,” Tomas Vokoun was saying as he unstrapped the big pads at this stall. “You look around in here, with the players we have, that's how it's going to be. And that's a good thing. You want to be on a team that has that kind of expectation.”

Of course. But that was last year's theme, one amplified by a bevy of big-time Ray Shero trades.

Now?

Well, put it this way: What exactly should be taken seriously between now and the next Eastern final?

If either Crosby or Evgeni Malkin adds another MVP or scoring title, will that tell us how they'll fare against the next Tuukka Rask who tests their playoff mettle?

If Fleury magically finds a Vezina level of brilliance, will anyone not cringe at the first 55-footer flung his way in the playoffs?

If Kris Letang fulfills his Norris potential, will anyone be stunned to see him melt down to a minus-5 in Game 1 of the playoffs?

These, maddeningly, are questions that can't be even peripherally answered until May and beyond.

So what to do now?

I brought that up with the captain on Thursday.

“I don't think we'll look ahead. We understand it's a process,” Crosby replied before then looking back to Boston. “I mean, nobody likes to lose. But … I don't know if there's more disappointment because we got swept. If we lost in seven, would it have been different? We did a lot of good things, but we didn't score. We can analyze it and be harsh, but only one team wins the Cup.”

He shook his head.

“To be sitting here and thinking about Boston in September … I'm not. I'm willing to learn from it, but I'm not thinking about it.”

Sounds healthy, but the fact remains that there is benefit to learning from it, even if Rask stood on his head, even if Crosby and Malkin and James Neal and all the shooters went stone-cold at the same time.

A few potential lessons:

• Repeat as necessary: Dan Bylsma must be more flexible in a one-opponent series. Here's hoping new hire Jacques Martin, a magnificent hockey mind, can help. Especially in simplifying those all-or-nothing, tic-tac-toe breakouts.

• After failing to skate in Rask's ZIP code, the Penguins must get back to being — say it with me, Barry Melrose — a hard team to play a-gayn-st. Right now, I'm not seeing that. Not if the third line is Beau Bennett-Brandon Sutter-Matt D'Agostini. Not if Glass is the grit guy.

• The stars must peak when it counts most. And if Crosby, Malkin and Letang couldn't do that in the lockout-shortened, Olympics-free schedule, how will they do that when they could play as many as 88 games — including the maximum six in Sochi — before the first playoff?

• Bennett must play. Not so sure about Simon Despres after he showed up here shamefully out of shape. But maybe top defense prospect Olli Maatta can step up instead. Younger, fresher legs are mandatory.

• Get a little humble. Sad to say, but Boston wasn't isolated. Remember, the Islanders nearly knocked them out. And before that, the Canadiens, Lightning and Flyers wrote the unhappy endings.

Crosby cited a lesson of his own, too, the one that followed losing to the Red Wings in the final in 2008, then coming right back to finish the job: “That team, we got to the final and lost in Game 6. That's pretty crushing, I can tell you that. But we found a way to win the next year. You don't like it. It hurts. But sometimes those things make you better.”

Fast-forward, anyone?

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