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Crosby focused on team goals as Penguins emerge as Cup contenders

Last year's surprise Penguins finished tied for third overall in the Eastern Conference with 105 points, but were bumped from the playoffs in the first round by the team they tied with, the Ottawa Senators.

And Crosby, who won MVP honours after leading the league with 120 points, wants both himself and the team to do even better this season.

"I'll be better," Crosby said Monday as the Penguins prepared to open their pre-season schedule against the Montreal Canadiens. "Maybe it doesn't mean getting the same amount of points, maybe it's less points, but I want to make sure I'm contributing to help the team.

"As a team, we want to go farther, We're not satisfied with losing in the first round of the playoffs."

It will be Year 3 of the Crosby Era in Pittsburgh and already the Penguins have built a team around their 20-year-old star that at least can challenge for the Cup.

The off-season addition of sniper Peter Sykora and defenceman Darryl Sydor has added experience to the mix to go with defenceman Sergei Gonchar and last season's pickups Mark Recchi and Gary Roberts.

But it remains a young squad, with forwards Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal as the key pieces with promising defenceman and power play point man Kristopher Letang and perhaps first-round pick Angelo Esposito bringing more skilled youth to the club.

But the time when they could surprise opponents has passed. Now, they'll be expected to win.

"Last year's over," added Crosby. "We have to prove ourselves again.

"We're one year older. That's not much difference, for sure, but if we take the lessons we learned last year, we're going to have a great opportunity. But we can't think about the playoffs now. It's way too far ahead and it's way too hard to win in this league."

Recchi welcomes the higher profle the team will carry into the 2007-08 campaign.

"We expect ourselves to do well, so it's really not a big deal," he said. "We have to continue to learn how to win and play the right way.

"If we do that, we will be successful and we will be a tough team to play against. If we don't get 105 points, are we unsuccesful? It depends how we play throughout the year and how we keep developing."

The Penguins begin the pre-season with games on consecutive nights in Montreal, a fun stop for a team with a heavy French-Canadian presence, including Letang, coach Michel Therrien, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and forwards Georges Laraque and Maxime Talbot, not to mention owner Mario Lemieux.

Esposito is a Montreal native, Recchi is a former Canadien, and Crosby played in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with Rimouski.

Crosby was scheduled to play Monday night, but not on Tuesday.

The plan for the season is to have Crosby play with Sykora on the right and Recchi on the left, with Malkin flanked by Roberts and Erik Christensen and Stall with Ryan Malone and Colby Armstrong.

Esposito, if he makes the club, looks like he will be converted to right wing from centre, where he played last season for the junior Quebec Remparts.

The 30-year-old Sykora brings a proven scoring touch to Crosby's line. He led the Edmonton Oilers last season with 53 points, including 22 goals.

"He's a smart player," said Crosby. "He's got a great shot and he knows where to go to score goals."

Crosby and Esposito drew equal mobs of media at their morning skate.

Esposito was the top-ranked junior in North America early last season, but slipped in the second half. He watched stonefaced as team after team passed him over in the draft until Pittsburgh suddenly snagged the slick skater 20th overall.

That drew a congratulatory phone call from Crosby.

"I thought it was a steal for us," said Crosby. "I know he expected to go earlier, but we're happy to have him and I heard him say he's pretty happy to be here.

"It's going to be a big test for him these next few games. He's got a lot of speed and he's a smart player. I don't know how it's going to go. He definitely has the tools, but it'll be up to him over the next few games."

Esposito will have to work for a job in camp, but at least he is with a team with a recent history of starting players young.

He is coming off a groin injury that caused him to miss the Penguins' rookie camp as well as the recently completed Canada-Russia Super Series, but said it has healed.

"I did drop in the draft and I have something to prove to everyone, but I'm just going to worry about myself right now, work hard and hopefully make the team this year," said Esposito. "If not, next year. We'll see how it goes.

"If I go back to Quebec, all the hard work and the work ethic in this locker-room I'll bring back to Quebec and that will help the team."



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