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Penguins

NHL players go for strict routine on road

| Sunday, Dec. 7, 2008

The choices Penguins center Jordan Staal had to make most of this past week - uh, veteran Buffalo Sabres defenseman Teppo Numminen knows them all too well.

"If you are young, you can get by eating a lot of junk food," Numminen said. "You're hungry at breakfast, and you load up on sugar or you want lunch and you get a cheese burger.

"You don't stay young forever, though. Eventually, you've got to start eating healthy and training like a professional athlete 24 hours a day. That's tough when you're in a different city every other day."

The Penguins wrapped a three-game road trip Saturday afternoon at Ottawa, the third city they visited over four days. A week prior, an off-day on Thanksgiving was sandwiched by trips to Long Island and Buffalo.

This is the life of NHL players, who can succumb to the season-closing grind in March because they took it easy on the road in December.

Staal, 20 and in his third full season, said he is "still learning" what to do when the Penguins are outside of Pittsburgh.

" Everyone is still learning," Staal said. "I remember asking (former teammate Gary Roberts) a few questions here and there, and he talked about sticking with a routine but learning how to improve upon it.

"I've figured out that sometimes you have to force yourself to stick to a routine. If you don't, you'll feel it later."

To avoid that feeling, current players from Staal to 38-year-old Carolina Hurricanes captain Rod Brind'Amour, whose reputation as a workout warrior is unrivaled, count carbs as often as they count down the final seconds on a stationary bike.

Becoming a true Road Warrior doesn't end there.

Organic food-based menus for team meals, a couple of supplement shakes between practice and a weight-lifting session, scheduled afternoon naps and early evenings that often don't involve alcohol - yeah, the NHL is no longer in the dark ages when it comes to players' preparedness for professionalism on the road.

"The whole aspect of staying in shape has changed," Brind'Amour said. "It wasn't even a question when I came into the league. Now if you have a day off on the road, guys are hitting the gym, looking for hotels with good workout rooms ... basically just trying to take care of themselves, and a lot goes into that.

"Sports have gone that way across the board. Especially hockey players have to be disciplined because it's such a physical game and a grueling season. The toll can hit you pretty fast."

Staal and the Penguins are fortunate in one aspect. Pittsburgh is as centrally located as the NHL universe gets, and the Penguins play only seven games outside of the Eastern Standard time zone this season.

Numminen, who played 16 of his 20 seasons with Western Conference clubs, said the Penguins have a routine-maintaining advantage with quick-stop road trips.

"It's a huge difference playing in a city like Buffalo or Pittsburgh - you get back home almost every night to sleep in your own bed and start the next day like normal," Numminen said.

"You play out west, and it's a week away, a week home. That's rough on the body. It wears on by the end of the season.

"The reason you need to have consistent training and a healthy approach on the road is so that by the end of the season, you are ready to play two more months."

Face off

Columnist Joe Starkey and beat reporter Rob Rossi are in the circle and ready to debate ...

How should the NHL lay out its schedule?

ROSSI RANTS ...

Neither Canadians nor Starkey - who is from Buffalo, which is as Canadian as an American can get - will back this suggestion, but the NHL should make like baseball before interleague play. Let's hear it for a hockey world in which the Penguins and Sharks could only play in the Stanley Cup final! Not only would this make for a unique championships round among the four major pro sports leagues, but regular-season action would benefit. Cross-country trips would no longer exhaust players. Fans in Edmonton might never get to see Sidney Crosby. So what• For years, baseball fans in Pittsburgh never had a chance to see Joe DiMaggio. The world survived.

STARKEY SAYS ...

You're aptly named, Rob, because this would make you The Grinch Who Stole Hockey. If I'm understanding you correctly, you'd deprive the entire Western Conference of ever seeing Sidney Crosby again - unless it's in the final -- and the entire East of ever seeing the Red Wings• Great idea. I suppose you'll be touting Sean Avery as the NHL's first relationship consultant, as well. The schedule is fine right now. As for the cross-country trips that "exhaust players," please. I've been on the team charter. It's like traveling in a flying version of Madonna's castle - plush seats, served meals and movies, big boy. If that's exhausting, I'd love to see refreshing.

Hat trick

Rob Rossi's thoughts and observations as the Penguins beat writer:

A REGULAR SEASON

The Penguins will not go so far as to formally request a traditional schedule next season, but I hear they would be extremely resistant to participating in so-called specialty games. After being a part of the Winter Classic and Premier Series in successive seasons, the Penguins are hoping to play all their games next season indoors and in North America. They also want each of their 41 home dates to be played at Mellon Arena, which will host its final NHL season.

FLETCH STAYS

It will take a perfect situation to pry assistant GM Chuck Fletcher from the Penguins this summer. Fletcher is quite content with his current job and feels no pressure to jump on the first GM offer that comes his way. Consensus around the NHL is that Fletcher is atop many clubs' candidate list, and he would merit serious consideration for GM vacancies this summer. However, Fletcher has previously spoken of a commitment to Penguins GM Ray Shero, and that commitment likely includes at least one more season.

MILD WINGS

That the Penguins entered Friday ranked fourth in the Eastern Conference was most impressive given the lack of goals they've received from wingers this season. Centers Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Mike Zigomanis had out-scored the club's wingers, 33-32. From Nov. 1 to Dec. 4, the Penguins' wingers had accounted for only 19 goals in 13 games, compared to 26 over that span by the centers. Depth down the middle is nice, but the Penguins will not earn home-ice advantage in any round if that trend continues.

Puck speak

Sharks RW Jonathan Cheechoo on ...

Stanley Cup expectations

"Our goal every year is to win the Stanley Cup, so if somebody else picks us, it's more neat than anything. It's nothing you can rest on, though, because how often does the team that's picked actually win it?"

Check it out

Records through Thursday of Top 5 preseason Stanley Cup favorites, according to 5Dimes Sportsbook:

TEAM — ODDS — RECORD (NHL RANK)

Red Wings — +440 — 16-4-4, 36 pts (T-3rd)

Penguins — +700 — 14-6-4, 32 pts (T-4th)

Sharks — +950 — 21-3-1, 43 pts (1st)

Canadiens — +1,100 — 14-6-4, 32 pts (T-4th)

Ducks — +1,500 — 14-10-3, 31 pts (T-5th)

Worst play:

Stars — +2,000 — 9-12-4, 22 pts (T-13th)

Best play:

Bruins — +4,000 — 16-4-4, 36 pts (T-3rd)

The future

The Penguins' minor-league report is written by Jonathan Bombulie, who has covered the Baby Pens for The Citizens' Voice in Wilkes-Barre since the team's inception in 1999. He can be reached by e-mail

STOCK UP

Luca Caputi

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL) · Winger

6-foot-3 · 185 pounds

When Caputi managed just a goal and three assists in the first 16 games of the season, it was easy to wonder whether labeling him the best homegrown winger prospect in the Penguins' organization was a mistake. Since then, Caputi, who scored 51 goals in junior hockey last season, erupted for four goals and two assists in his past six games, doing the dirty work on a line with center Dustin Jeffrey and winger Connor James.

Caputi has six points in his past six games. During that stretch, he also picked up two roughing minors and his first professional fighting major.

That's not a coincidence.

The uglier Caputi's game, the more goals he is likely to score.

"I think it's improvement from him figuring out, 'This is how I'm going to have success. It's not going to be easy. It's not going to be me being pretty,'" coach Dan Bylsma said.

"Luca's put his head down and gone to the net when it would have been easier to pull up. He's getting more offensive zone time with his line, and as a result of that, you're seeing Luca get more individual success."

Claude's comeback

The Baby Pens got an up-close look at Claude Lemieux's comeback on Wednesday. Lemieux, 43, is playing with the AHL's Worcester Sharks in an attempt to return to the NHL after more than four years of retirement.

Lemieux was scoreless and minus-1 in the Baby Pens' 4-1 win Wednesday, but he did total a goal and an assist in three games before that.

"I don't blame him," Baby Pens winger Paul Bissonnette said. "I could see myself playing until that age, because I'd probably get bored and have nothing else to do. You can't really knock him, because he's got a goal and (an assist) so far. It seems like he's contributing to his team.

"The guy did play in the NHL for 18 decades. He was playing when dinosaurs roamed the earth."

Setting an example

Tim Wallace, a physical third-year winger, is nobody's sniper, but he found himself on the top line with Jeff Taffe and Chris Minard last weekend largely because Bylsma wanted to send a message to the rest of the team's forwards.

"We needed to get into more of a mentality, throughout our lineup, that we were going to put pucks behind their D," Bylsma said. "Tim Wallace is a guy who establishes himself on the forecheck and can be a force in the offensive zone."

Bus league

Faced with a difficult road schedule, the Baby Pens have already spent more than 5,200 miles on a bus this season. That's the equivalent of driving from Wilkes-Barre to Los Angeles and back.

"It feels like we've been on the road forever," winger Connor James said.

Voice of the fan

Bill Edmondson · Bar Harbor, Maine

No matter how much Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin fill the net, they will not be able to take the Penguins to a championship alone. ... Watching Jordan Staal over the past month, it has become clear that he has scary ability that is developing at a steady pace. His size, strength and skills make him a unique asset. There are times he looks like a man among boys on the ice. In two or three years, when he grows into his frame, it is conceivable Staal will become a more intimidating player than Crosby or Malkin.

Got hockey thoughts• hockeyday@tribweb.com

What's on deck

The week ahead for the Penguins:

Monday

Penguins vs. Sabres

7:30 p.m.

TV: Versus

Wednesday

Penguins at Devils

7 p.m.

TV: FSN Pittsburgh

Thursday

Penguins vs. Islanders

7:30 p.m.

TV: FSN Pittsburgh

Saturday

Penguins at Flyers

1 p.m.

TV: FSN Pittsburgh

NHL Game of the Week

Thursday · 10:30 p.m.

Ducks at Sharks

With San Jose threatening to run away with the Pacific Division, this rates an early must-win game for the Ducks.

TV: None

Additional Information:

So you say ...

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