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Penguins' vibe unsettling

| Sunday, Sept. 28, 2008

Forget bobblehead dolls. Somebody out there apparently has a bunch of Penguins voodoo dolls and a serious urge to jab them with needles.

The Stanley Cup final ended June 4. Since then, the Penguins have lost Marian Hossa, Ryan Malone, Jarkko Ruutu, Gary Roberts, Ty Conklin, Adam Hall and Georges Laraque to other teams (mostly Tampa Bay) and defensemen Ryan Whitney and Sergei Gonchar to long-term injuries.

Geez, even the coach got hurt.

Talk about a karma crash.

Some of us believe that the Penguins, even in their current state, remain the class of the Eastern Conference and a decent bet to return to the Cup final. No team in the East can match their top-end talent -- and it's not like this is the first injury outbreak around here.

As center Max Talbot put it, "We were pretty unlucky last season. We lost the best player in the world and our first goalie. I don't think it can get worse than that, touch wood."

Probably not. But could you blame anyone for feeling a bit uneasy right now, fearful of what might go wrong next?

This Penguins' offseason has conjured memories of what the Steelers endured after Super Bowl XL, albeit on a lesser scale.


The trouble began with losses of key players such as Jerome Bettis, Kimo von Oelhoffen, Chris Hope and Antwaan Randle El, compounded by rumors of coach Bill Cowher's impending retirement.

None of those players was an All-Pro at the time, but each was an important part of the locker-room chemistry. Bettis was the team Buddha, the spiritual leader whose presence commanded respect. Kind of like Roberts in the hockey world.

Later that summer, star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had his motorcycle accident, and first-round draft pick Santonio Holmes was arrested twice. By the time training camp opened, there were so many bad omens floating around, you half-expected the Steelers to show up wearing red flags instead of practice jerseys.

But here's what people don't seem to remember about that team: After a brutal 2-6 start, it finished 6-2 and barely missed the playoffs. It had enough talent and character and respect for Cowher to keep playing to the bitter end.

Presented with every excuse to quit, it stubbornly persevered.

We'll see if these Penguins are made of the same kind of stuff. Crosby believes so.

"No doubt, it's not good when you lose guys," he said. "But you can react a lot of different ways. The way we reacted last year was great, and I think we can do it again."

Say this much: If the players are feeling a bad vibe, they have a funny way of showing it. After practice Friday at Southpointe, a day before they were scheduled to leave for Sweden to open the season, Talbot was holding court in a loose and lively dressing room.

Any trouble with the new guys fitting in, Max?

"It depends which guy," he said. "A guy like (Ruslan) Fedotenko is pretty cool. A guy like Matt Cooke, he's a (bad word). It's hard to mix him in. He's kind of a loner, and nobody likes him."

Talbot was kidding, of course. Cooke was laughing right next to him.

Look, every year is different even if the same cast of characters returns. Chemistry must be re-established. Roles must be redefined.

I broached that topic recently with Denis Potvin, a four-time Stanley Cup winner with the New York Islanders. He spoke of how players often start a season somewhat self-absorbed, consumed with their contracts and other such matters. Still stuck in summer.

As the weeks and months pass, if proper chemistry is achieved, those individuals will form a bond. Winning, obviously, helps to foster the process.

"Ideally, they start to play for each other," Potvin said. "They start to play for bigger goals."

We really don't know how Miroslav Satan and Fedotenko and Cooke and Alex Goligoski will meld into this group. We don't know how long Gonchar will be out or if Whitney will regain his pre-injury form when he returns.

We don't know if Crosby and/or Evgeni Malkin and/or Jordan Staal will find new ways to lead and exploit their talents. We cannot predict injuries or which other teams might find the magic formula or whether the Penguins will respond to adversity like they did last season.

But if this club was looking for a fresh challenge in the wake of that unexpectedly swift run to the Stanley Cup final, it's here.

And it's daunting.

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