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Can the red-hot Penguins be stopped? Confidence oozing from young club

By now it should be clear to everyone in the hockey world that Sid the Kid and the rest of the kids on his Penguins squad will almost surely make the post-season. The question now is just how far they'll go.

"We believe if we play the right way we can beat anybody right now," said veteran Penguins winger Mark Recchi, the lone greybeard on his club. "That's where our confidence is."

That confidence is oozing out of the dressing room of the Eastern Conference's youngest club thanks to an 11-0-2 run in their last 13 games. The Penguins (29-17-9) sit fourth in the Eastern Conference with 67 points, and could even give the New Jersey Devils (74 points) a run for first place in the Atlantic Division.

"We're playing some pretty good hockey," said sophomore superstar Sidney Crosby. "Everyone is contributing. We don't want to look too far ahead, we're just trying to feed off the confidence that we're building."

It's just too tempting to compare this up-and-coming team to the Edmonton Oilers teams of the early 1980s when Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Paul Coffey formed a young nucleus that would go on to dominate the decade and win five Stanley Cups.

Now it's Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal - all under the age of 21 but growing by leaps and bounds.

The sky seems to be the limit right now for these flying Penguins.

"It's not like a cocky confidence or anything, it's just that when we come into a game and follow our game plan, we're going to play Penguin hockey," said third-line winger Colby Armstrong.

Penguin hockey is fast and furious. And it's more than Crosby. When his top line with Recchi and Ryan Malone was largely shut down Saturday night by Toronto - Crosby limited to one assist - the second line of Malkin between Staal and Michel Ouellet picked up the slack in a 6-5 overtime win. Staal's first career NHL hat trick, including the OT winner, took the heat off Crosby.

"Last year Sid had a great year but now we have a 1-2 punch and it seems to be working," said the 18-year-old Staal, who has 23 goals. "Evgeni is a great hockey player, he sees the ice so well, I just try to get open and it seems to be working."

Few people in and around hockey had the Penguins sitting fourth in the East by mid-February given their 29th-place finish in the 30-team league last season.

"The one thing we talked about the first meeting at training camp was changing the attitude here in this organization," said the second-year Armstrong. "(GM) Ray (Shero) came in and brought in some new guys. We started fresh with a new system and everybody jumped on board. It took a little while but we learned together."

The key, says the 39-year-old Recchi, who played on Pittsburgh's first Cup-champion team in 1990-91, is not to feel satisfied now. The most important hockey of the season is still ahead.

"We want to keep pushing forward here," Recchi said. "We're still growing as a team, we're still learning how to win. Now our biggest challenge is to stay consistent, stay focused and make sure we don't have any letdowns in the next little while."

If they play Penguin hockey, the wins will keep coming.

"When we skate like we can, we make it very hard on other teams," said Recchi, won a Cup with Carolina last spring. "We actually haven't been at our best lately but we're finding ways to win and we're learning from that."

Added Staal: "It seems like this team never wants to give up and that's what good teams do. We're never satisfied without a win."


Matty Beniers

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