Penguins F Recchi believes his next sip from the Stanley Cup may come soon

“I look at our team right now, and I see a contender,” Recchi said Monday in a conference call. “I obviously love what I see here.”

The Penguins are playing for more than pride or personal accomplishments this year, thanks in large part to Recchi’s contribution.

Recchi was named the NHL’s first star Monday, posting three goals and three assists as Pittsburgh christened its post-all-star schedule with road wins over Dallas and Phoenix. His second goal in Friday’s 4-3 shootout win over the Stars was the 500th of his career.

Dating back to an 8-2 win over Toronto prior to the break, Recchi, who turns 39 on Thursday, has 10 points (6-4) in his last three games. His outburst has moved him back on a point-per-game pace with 48 points (17-31) in 48 outings, and more importantly, it’s helped propel the Penguins (23-17-8) into seventh place in the Eastern Conference, 23 points ahead of last year’s pace.

But the numbers can’t account for how much fun Recchi is having on a team that arguably boasts the best young core in the NHL, led by league scoring leader Sidney Crosby – who is half Recchi’s age.

“When you get skill level like (Evgeni) Malkin and Jordan Staal, and Sid’s a year older and (Ryan) Whitney’s a year older, the pieces are there,” said Recchi. “These guys want to win and they have a great attitude about coming to the rink every day and trying to get better.”

The Penguins were a mess in 2005-06, posting a dreadful 22-46-14 record that left them at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. Despite a strong year from Crosby (102 points), Pittsburgh lacked the depth and experience necessary to compete as they missed the playoffs for the fourth straight season.

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What little leadership the Penguins did have was shipped out of town when Recchi was dealt to Carolina at the trade deadline. Recchi helped the Hurricanes capture their first Stanley Cup title, then promptly re-signed with Pittsburgh in the off-season.

He immediately liked what he saw in his return.

“The attitude right from training camp was terrific,” said Recchi. “I think the guys came in very unhappy about the way things went last year.”

Besides Crosby, the additions of Malkin (52 points) and Staal (16 goals) have helped, as has the emergence of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury as a top-flight NHL netminder. And Whitney (35 points) has already become one of the league’s best offensive defencemen.

Be afraid, opponents: they’re all under the age of 24.

For that reason, Carolina’s playoff run has actually benefited the Penguins, who rely on Recchi for advice on how to handle the newfound success. Recchi said Crosby’s maturity has made his job easier.

“The biggest thing for me was to lead by example,” said Recchi. “It hasn’t been that hard with these young guys, especially Sidney. He has a great work ethic and he wants to get better every day. When you have that, everybody falls into place.”

Recchi, who will make US$2.28 million this season, is set to become an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. He said he would like to remain with the Penguins, but added that the decision may not be up to him.

“You never know come summertime whether the organization wants to go in a different direction,” said Recchi. “But I like it here, and I like these young guys, and hopefully I can be a part of this for another year or two.”