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Penguins coach hoping practice time gets new players comfortable

| Thursday, April 4, 2013, 10:54 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Brenden Morrow plays against the Sabres on Tuesday, April 2, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.

Dan Bylsma has a busy four weeks ahead.

In no particular order he would like to:

Wrap up the Atlantic Division and No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference; welcome captain Sidney Crosby, top defenseman Kris Letang and, maybe, defenseman Paul Martin back into the lineup; help four new players assimilate into the Penguins' way of work.

Bylsma, the Penguins head coach, also would like to double — at least — the number of ideal practices from February and March.

“I'd say we had two,” Bylsma said Thursday after an optional session at Consol Energy Center.

The Penguins (28-10-0, 56 points) have lost two straight games after 15 consecutive wins. They play the New York Rangers at home Friday night.

After that game, Bylsma and his players will try not to see one another until Monday. A free weekend during this shortened NHL season is rare.

So are three days between games, but the Penguins will have two stretches like that before the Stanley Cup playoffs open April 30.

Before Thursday's games, no NHL club had played more than the Penguins, who will have only nine games remaining after facing the Rangers.

Another way to look at it:

The Penguins will play nine games in the final 22 days of the regular season after the Rangers contest. The Penguins began this 48-game season with 14 games over 23 days.

All this free time should please Bylsma, a reputed rink rat who loves a day filled by film sessions and on-ice work.

However, a limited number of games will not mean more practices, Bylsma said Thursday.

“I wish I felt like the schedule was going to allow us to practice more,” Bylsma said. “I look at the next few days as a time to rest and recover rather than a time to get practice in. We will certainly value the practice time when we are able to get it.

“Being able to incorporate into practice the speed and our execution is important with our new players. Every chance we get that will be our focus. It won't be just going through a shooting drill to have a shooting drill. We need to make sure we can get that execution, the speed of that execution, into our game.”

The challenge of producing worthwhile practices is not unique to the Penguins during this shortened season, but here is how it has impacted them recently.

Forward Jussi Jokinen, acquired Thursday, will be the third of four players to join the club over the last two weeks who will play a game before participating in a full practice. Wingers Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow did that after their trades to the Penguins.

Center Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, who has moved from right wing to left wing to make room for Iginla, a right winger, have had just one full-squad practice session with one another.

Letang, out with a broken toe but skating on his own, will not be able to practice until Monday because Bylsma will give players the weekend to get away from hockey.

It is no doubt beneficial that 11 current Penguins were part of Bylsma's 2009 Stanley Cup squad. Still, there are four who weren't part of this squad two weeks ago and another five who never had practiced regularly with the Penguins before this season.

The playoffs are four weeks away. If Bylsma could get in one great practice each week, he would view that as a winning April.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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