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For first time in 6 years, Penguins contending at All-Star break

| Monday, Jan. 22, 2007

Mark Recchi hasn't seen a Pittsburgh Penguins team like this since Mario Lemieux's comeback season six years ago.

It's a team that may be ready not only to make the playoffs, but to accomplish something in them, a team that can count on hockey's best scorer to make big plays and score vital goals, even if that player now is Sidney Crosby rather than Lemieux.

"We're not that far away," Recchi said of a young Penguins team that is involved in its first playoff race since 2001. "A lot of the pieces are there."

The Penguins, off until Friday as they enjoy a five-day All-Star break, have a 21-17-8 record and 50 points with 36 games to play. Accustomed to being well out of playoff contention by now, they're tied for the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

"Our goal and focus is to make the playoffs this year and build off that," Crosby said.

These Penguins aren't a threat to overtake Nashville (71 points) for the overall points lead any time soon. But the Penguins need only one more victory and eight more points to match what they achieved while going 22-46-14 last season, their worst record in 22 years.

The Penguins haven't finished out of last place in the Atlantic Division or won more than 28 games since Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr last played together in 2000-01, when they lost to New Jersey in the Eastern Conference final.

Adding new scorers Evgeni Malkin (52 points in 42 games at age 20) and Jordan Staal (15 goals in 45 games at age 18) to a lineup already led by Crosby has given the Penguins scoring depth beyond their first line. And, except for Crosby, former No. 1 draft pick Marc-Andre Fleury might be their most valuable player with a 20-12-6 record in goal and a greater on-ice awareness of what it takes to make important saves at pivotal moments.

All this youth has proven inspirational to the 38-year-old Recchi, who has 42 points in 46 games following a three-goal game Saturday against Toronto.

To Recchi, the Penguins lack the depth and experience of last season's Stanley Cup champions, the Carolina Hurricanes. Recchi was traded by Pittsburgh to the Hurricanes late last season and had 16 points in 25 playoff games for them.

"When you have Doug Weight as your third line center and Ray Whitney as your third line winger, you're a pretty good hockey club," Recchi said.

Still, Recchi doesn't think the Penguins need much more to compete with current top-record clubs such as Nashville, Detroit, Anaheim and Buffalo. Recchi and his teammates already are eager to see what general manager Ray Shero might add before the Feb. 27 trading deadline.

During the offseason, Shero made a series of little-noticed deals to pick up valuable role players such as Dominic Moore and Jarkko Ruutu.

"We are deeper now, with a lot more character guys," Recchi said.

The playoff race figures to be close, with only Philadelphia currently out of contention in the Eastern Conference. All but six of the Penguins' remaining 36 games are against teams they are competing against to reach the postseason.

With one of the NHL's youngest teams — only San Jose was younger when the season started — the Penguins may see the schedule as an advantage. They play 17 times in March, including two stretches of five games in eight days.

Such a schedule, with travel included, would be rugged for an experienced team, but might not be as demanding for the Penguins. After all, coach Michel Therrien sometimes has to chase players such as Crosby, Staal and Colby Armstrong off the ice following practice.

"It's a good young group we have and, hopefully, it can be a successful group for years to come," Crosby said.

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