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Ex-Oiler Sykora lands dream job on Crosby line in Pittsburgh

The 30-year-old Czech signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins and got put on right wing on the first line with NHL most valuable player and scoring leader Sidney Crosby.

Now he just needs show enough in camp to stay on the trio with 20-year-old Crosby and 39-year-old Mark Recchi when the regular season begins.

"There's not many guys like Sidney in this league and to be able to play with a player like that would be one of the top moments in my career," Sykora said Tuesday as the Penguins prepared to play their second pre-season game in as many nights against the Montreal Canadiens.

The line saw its first action in a 3-2 overtime loss on Monday night at the Bell Centre. Crosby had a goal and an assist, while Sykora was held off the scoresheet, but only by a sprawling stick save from Cristobal Huet late in the first period.

"We had so many chances during the scrimmages this week and on (Monday) night, we could have had four or five goals," he added. "It's not really going in now. but it's not tough to get used to playing with Sidney.

"He's always in the right position. He drives the middle. He makes plays to beat guys 1-on-1 and create odd-man situations. To play with a player like that, you know you're going to get your scoring chances. I really hope I'm going to stay on that line."

Although Crosby and Recchi sat out the second game in Montreal, Sykora was pencilled in as a replacement for veteran Gary Roberts, who is still working on conditioning after developing a chest infection two weeks before camp.

Sykora, who won a Stanley Cup with New Jersey in 2000, and defenceman Darryl Sydor, a two-time Cup winner, were Pittsburgh's top free agent signings, both inking two-year deals worth US$5 million.

It will be Sykora's chance to pile up points again, as he did in 2000-01 with 35 goals and 81 points for the Devils, or 2002-03, when he scored 34 goals for Anaheim.

He led Edmonton with 53 points, including 22 goals, in his lone year as an Oiler last season after signing as a free agent.

"I told (the Oilers) at the end of the season that I'd like to come back," he said. "Basically, the answer was to be patient and wait, 'we're going to sign some big players.'

"I guess they didn't and I didn't want to wait because I got the offer from the Penguins. When you get an offer from a team like that, you never refuse."

Pittsburgh was at the top of his wish list and he signed on the first day of free agency on July 1.

"I think I need to play with a fast centre, and Sid, Gino (Evgeni Malkin) and Staalsy (Jordan Staal) are all very fast, with good hands," Sykora said. "Not too many teams in the league have three good offensive centres like this team."

He also sees a shot at a Stanley Cup, although just winning the Atlantic Division got tougher this year when the New York Rangers signed centres Chris Drury and Scott Gomez and Philadelphia boosted its roster with Daniel Briere, Kimmo Timmonen, Jason Smith, Scott Hartnell and Joffrey Lupul.

The Penguins surprised many by earning 105 points last season, second in the division to New Jersey and tied for third in the Eastern Conference with Ottawa.

"I really feel this team is a Cup contender - this team has a chance," he said. "It reminds me here of Jersey. We really play by the system. This is the way to be successful in the modern NHL. I don't see any reason why we shouldn't do it."

Roberts is more cautious of predictions for the supremely gifted but still mostly young Penguins, who were ousted in the first round of playoffs by Ottawa in the spring.

"There's no doubt our expectations are higher this year, but we start the season like everyone else - with zero points," he said. "Teams will be ready to play us this year, where last year maybe they weren't.

"There will be no easy games. Our division got harder. All the teams have improved. So the expectations may be higher, but we've got a lot of work to do to get there. To get those 105 points, we'll have to be better than last season."

Roberts hopes to get into a couple of exhibition games next week and expects to be ready for the start of the regular season.



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