The Penguins’ dressing room was bustling with activity this weekend as the team got back to work after a longer-than-usual summer. Players greeted one another and caught up on their summers. The speakers played a mix of rock music from Tool, Guns N’ Roses, Rusted Root and, of course, Led Zeppelin, courtesy of goalie Brent Johnson. Fellow netminder Marc-Andre Fleury loosened up a new set of pads – white with gold trim – and matching gloves. A few players stopped in front of the big-screen television to see how the cross-town Pittsburgh Steelers were faring in their home opener against the Seattle Seahawks.
And, at the far end of the room, Sidney Crosby suited up alongside the rest of his teammates. The 24-year-old captain wore a white helmet to indicate his no-contact status and did everything except participate in a scrimmage, pushing himself hard during drills and not shying away from high-traffic areas.
“I’m trying to do everything but getting hit right now, but you still have to create good habits as best you can,” Crosby said. “I’m trying to practice being around traffic.”
Most importantly, after two practice sessions where he exerted himself “all-out” for the longest period of time in his recovery, it’s so far, so good for Crosby in terms of his concussion symptoms.
“It’s pretty tough skates out there, up and down,” he said. “Whether you’re like me coming off this [injury] or someone who’s trained all summer, it’s still pretty intense for everyone out there. For me, I’m just happy to be out there and a part of it. I felt pretty good. I was tired, but it was nice.”
There’s still no timetable for Crosby’s return, but fellow star center Evgeni Malkin is ready to go, showing no ill effects from his surgically repaired right knee.
“It’s the old Geno that we know,” Fleury said. “It’s good to see.”
“I can’t say it’s 90 percent, but it’s pretty close,” Malkin said. “I’ve got 20 more days to just work hard and be 100 percent ready for the season.”
He skated on a line with Tyler Kennedy and newcomer Steve Sullivan that showed promise, accounting for three goals in the first scrimmage of training camp.
“I think that Geno and Tyler Kennedy already have a lot of chemistry. They’ve played together quite a bit; I think you can see on the ice that they read each other very well,” Sullivan said. “I just tried to stay out of the way and made sure I let them do their things. If I was able to make some contributions, get them the puck at the right place at the right time…playing with those two players, it’s pretty easy.”
“He’s a fast guy that creates a lot of room for other guys,” Kennedy said of Sullivan, a 37-year-old, 5-foot-8 winger who played the last five-plus seasons in Nashville. “You can tell he’s a veteran. He makes smart plays and the right plays at the right time.”
Like Crosby and Malkin, defenseman Brooks Orpik is on the mend after undergoing lower abdominal/hernia surgery on his right side this summer. Orpik, who underwent the same surgery last summer on his left side, hopes to be ready for the start of the regular season October 6.
“I’m definitely not 100 percent, but it’s getting there … probably right on target for where I’m supposed to be,” Orpik said. “It’s more just trying to get my game shape back; I’ve only skated about five times so far. It’s just a matter of being patient and trying to get some good practices in.”
Others are just looking forward to the fresh start that a new season provides, after a year that was uncommonly injury-plagued for the club.
“I worked hard in the offseason,” said Arron Asham, who signed his second one-year deal with the club this summer. “I had a good playoffs … but, because of all the injuries I had last season, I didn’t get to prove myself too much. Ray [Shero, GM] had me back, gave me another shot, so I’ve got to come in here and prove that he made the right decision, and hopefully earn another contract. I just want a regular shift in every game, try to stay healthy and build off the end of last year.”
Those injuries – including a concussion that sidelined him for nearly two months – won’t change the gritty nature of Asham’s game, however. Nor will the tragic deaths of several players this summer – Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak – who, like Asham, were no strangers to dropping the gloves.
“Fighting will never leave the game, I don’t think,” Asham said. “If fighting’s gone, star players are going to be taken advantage of and there’s going to be a lot more injuries … [but] it’s definitely tough to see guys you played against for years go down like that. Depression’s a disease and it’s tough to deal with. I’m not sure if it’s from the pressure weighing on [their] shoulders every game, knowing [they have] to fight, or what it was, but it’s something we’ve definitely got to look more into and make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
The Penguins head to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Monday, where members of the NHL squad will face off with members of their AHL affiliate in the second “Black and Gold Game.” Then they’ll embark on a six-game preseason schedule, with the first three at home and second half on the road. For a team that exited the playoffs after just seven games last April, it’s none too soon.
“It usually seems like summer flies by so quickly, but now I’m anxious to get back at it,” Fleury said.