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Notebook: Pens' improved play brings bigger crowds

| Sunday, Feb. 4, 2007

At this rate, the Penguins might need a new Uptown arena for no other reason than to meet fans' desire to watch the upstart hockey club.

The Penguins, in the thick of a playoff race after finishing with the league's second-worst record last year, played before their 17th sellout of this season Saturday at Mellon Arena. The Penguins have sold out all but 10 home games this season.

The capacity crowd that watched the showdown between the Penguins' Sidney Crosby and Washington's Alexander Ovechkin, the league's top two scorers, represented the team's 10th sellout in the past 11 home games.

Last season, Crosby's first, the Penguins played before 93 percent capacity at home. They sold out Mellon Arena on 12 occasions.

The arrival of heralded rookies Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal and the team's improved record has left the Penguins playing before an even higher capacity percentage this season.

"The best (public relations) is winning," said Tom McMillan, the Penguins' vice president of communications. "A year like this, where we have exceeded expectations, the people are excited about what is going on and where this team is going. It's very much a case of the fans wanting to get in on the ground floor."

Such was the case during the 1986-87 season, when the Penguins' home sellouts jumped from 13 to 26 thanks to the star power of Mario Lemieux.

Also, the core of a Penguins club that would win consecutive Stanley Cups in the early 1990s was being formed in the late 1980s. Fans in Pittsburgh responded by filling the then-Civic Arena no fewer than 25 times annually through 1989-90 -- with highs of 34 sellouts in each of the 1988-89 and 1989-90 seasons -- despite the team qualifying for the playoffs just once over that span.

"It's the same feeling as the late 1980s," McMillan said. "The excitement preceded the success and fans jumped on early. Fans were staking an early claim to a team they thought would be good, just like they are now."

Armstrong out

Right winger Colby Armstrong missed the Penguins' 2-0 victory over the Capitals due to what coach Michel Therrien termed a sprained right knee. Therrien said Armstrong would not accompany the Penguins on their trip to Montreal for a game today against the Canadiens.

Therrien classified Armstrong as day-to-day.

"I'm not quite sure how he did it," Therrien said. "He finished the game (Thursday against Montreal at Mellon Arena), but then his knee was swollen."

Armstrong likely would have received an unkind welcome from the Canadiens after Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau was critical of a hit Armstrong delivered to Saku Koivu in the second period Thursday.

"It was definitely a cheap shot," Carbonneau told media in Canada.

The hit caught Koivu off guard, but Armstrong was not penalized. Shortly after, Armstrong was jumped by Montreal's Sheldon Souray, which resulted in a seven-minute power play for the Penguins, on which they scored twice, and Souray's ejection from the game.

Until yesterday, Armstrong had not missed a game this season. He has scored six goals and recorded 19 points.

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