By Joe Starkey
Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Johnston, left, and assistant Rick Tocchet, right rear, stand behind their bench as Beau Bennett (19) celebrates with teammates after scoring a first period goal during a NHL pre-season hockey game against the Detroit Red Wings in Pittsburgh Monday, Sept. 22, 2014. The Red Wings won 2-1. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
No matter how you or I or anyone else feels about the Penguins' offseason changes, let's admit two things: 1. Things had grown a bit stale around here. 2. The new guys deserve a clean sheet of ice when the season opens Thursday night against the Anaheim Ducks.
The old guys do, too, and in some cases those are one and the same.
Jim Rutherford, 65, took on this challenge and made some bold changes. Good for him. It's his team now. Let's see what he's got.
Mike Johnston, 57, finally gets a chance to run an NHL bench. He has earned his shot. He admits this is a step beyond the World Championships or any other kind of game he has experienced, even Stanley Cup playoff games as an assistant.
“This is a bigger stage, for sure,” Johnston said. “I think everybody's going to come in (Thursday) — whether you're a new player, returning player or new coach — and be excited, be energized, be nervous for opening night.”
Even the savviest of savvy old veterans acknowledge the different energy that accompanies Game 1. Mike Lange is entering his 40th anniversary season as a Penguins broadcaster, but you better believe the butterflies will be circling before the puck drops.
“Absolutely,” Lange said. “I'd wanna quit if I didn't have the nerves.”
Lange “went to the shoebox” for some new goal calls this offseason, as he does every offseason. Part of his excitement, or anxiety, or whatever you want to call it, is the fear of making a “really big mistake.” Part of it is just waiting for the reassurance that, yes, he still has it.
Players can relate to that.
Take goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, a veteran of 288 wins. Fleury turns 30 — is that possible? — on Nov. 28. But he'll have those Game 1 jitters.
“First game back, it's always, ‘I wonder: Am I going to be ready enough? Have I done enough?' ” Fleury said. “You want to start on a good note, right? There's always a little something (going on inside). It's fun, though.”
A fresh start means different things to different people. For defenseman Rob Scuderi, it's the chance to prove himself again after a down season. For defenseman Kris Letang, it's the chance to return to some sense of normalcy after a horrifying nightmare of a season. For winger Pascal Dupuis, it's the long-awaited opportunity to play in a real game after tearing up his knee.
“There's excitement with every opener, but this one — with what I've been through in the last nine to 10 months — it's definitely special,” Dupuis said. “I'm ready to battle with the guys instead of watching them in my suit. Since the surgery happened, it's the only thing I could think of: When am I going to be able to play? When is the first real game?”
It's here. And for newcomers such as Steve Downie, Nick Spaling, Patric Hornqvist, Blake Comeau, Thomas Greiss and Christian Ehrhoff, it offers the chance to press the reset button on their careers. These men have no past in Pittsburgh. Just a beckoning future.
“When I signed in Buffalo three years ago, I signed with the intention of being on a good team and developing into a contender,” Ehrhoff said. “It obviously didn't turn out that way. So for me, this is a chance to be on a great team that has a chance to play for the Cup.”
Hornqvist realizes the awesome opportunity he has in playing on Sidney Crosby's wing. He also knows that expectations here are much different than in Nashville.
“You can feel it right away,” he said. “From the first day of training camp, it's a lot of pressure. But that's what players dream about.”
Evgeni Malkin has the opportunity to reestablish himself as a top-five player in the world. Crosby will be trying to defend his unquestioned status as the greatest offensive force in the game.
Crosby, as the leader, also has a chance to recalibrate a dressing room where the fun of winning admittedly waned last season and where, as defenseman Brooks Orpik put it after signing with the Washington Capitals, “outside pressures seeped in.”
“There's a lot of new guys with the opportunity for new roles,” Crosby said. “For some guys that means bigger roles, and with that comes energy.”
New energy. New chapter. New year. Clean sheet of ice.
Let's see what the Penguins do with it.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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