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Stable Penguins hope cohesion will lead to success whenever NHL lockout ends

PITTSBURGH, Pa. - Sidney Crosby's been down the road too many times during the NHL's seemingly interminable lockout to get too optimistic about the latest—and perhaps last—round of negotiations.

Yet the Pittsburgh Penguins star knows eventually his team will get back to work. If it's sometime later this month, the normal 82-game regular season would turn into a 48-game dash, one that would seem to favour clubs like the Penguins.

Pittsburgh did little to overhaul its roster during the off-season, believing the core that fell to Philadelphia in the opening round of last spring's playoffs remains strong enough to compete for a Stanley Cup.

Other than the addition of centre Brandon Sutter—acquired in a draft day trade that sent Jordan Staal to Carolina—the Penguins believe there will be little if any "getting to know you" time whenever the puck drops.

"We can look at that as a positive for sure," Crosby said. "Guys understand their roles and what they need to do and there's trust there. Maybe with some newer guys you have to develop that a little bit more but yeah I would say it can't hurt and it certainly helps a little bit to have that familiarity there."

While some Penguins, notably reigning MVP Evgeni Malkin, travelled overseas to cash a paycheque during the lockout, Crosby has been leading a handful of teammates onto the ice for drills four days a week. Thursday he lined up alongside normal linemates Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis for a little 4-on-4, placing the puck on top of his head then dropping it to the ice for face-offs in place of a linesman.

The hour-long session didn't quite match the intensity of a game, but there are also few places in the league that have shown as much solidarity during the four-month-old lockout. The Penguins believe that can only pay off when things get going for real.

"I think that that's definitely an advantage," defenceman Ben Lovejoy said. "I think we're going to find out (when the lockout ends) which teams took it seriously the last couple months (and) who decided to go on vacation."

Something there's been very little of in Pittsburgh. Crosby has basically lost two years of his prime while dealing with concussion-like symptoms and now a work stoppage. He never really got back up to full speed last year, scoring only eight times in 29 regular-season games. He picked it up in the playoffs, notching three goals in a wild six-game series with the Flyers.

Now healthy—and with a new contract that will keep him in Pittsburgh until his late-30s—Crosby is eager to etch his legacy in stone. Having familiar faces to work with in what could be something akin to the 1994-95 season that was limited to just 48 games could help him get off to a quick start.

Crosby has talked with Pittsburgh player development coach Bill Guerin about what it takes to navigate such a busy schedule. Guerin was part of the New Jersey Devils team that hoisted the Cup in 1995 after a three-month sprint.

The lesson Guerin imparted was simple: don't mess around.

"You don't have time to drop a bunch of games, it's pretty hard to catch up," Crosby said. "I think you have to be ready to find a way as best you can. Every team is kind of in the same situation trying to get ready quick but you really have to be as close to your best right away. Usually you have a whole season to find your identity. I think you have to find it a little bit quicker in a shorter season."

It's something the Penguins believe they can do provided they stay healthy. If anything, the lockout has provided the players who stuck close to Pittsburgh pretty good at running their own practices.

Forward Joe Vitale joked there's no need for coach Dan Bylsma to show up once things return to normal.

"If he can keep doing what he's doing, that'd be great," Vitale said with a laugh.

He's kidding. The well-liked Bylsma is one of the main reasons the Penguins have been among the most stable franchises in a league that sometimes struggles to find its footing. That shouldn't be a problem in Pittsburgh, which hopes a quick start will lead to an even better finish.

"Playing with the same guys for the most part, there's a comfort zone," Vitale said. "You can read off each other well, so there's not really as many growing pains."

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Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP

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