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Human nature on the side of Penguins, Sidney Crosby as quest for another Cup begins

October 4, 2018
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Penguins center Sidney Crosby skates with the puck against the Blue Jackets Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018 at PPG Paints Arena.

When Sidney Crosby sat in his locker stall at PPG Paints Arena the day before last year’s season opener, he knew human nature would be one of the biggest enemies he and his teammates were about to face.

This year, he knows it could be their best friend.

That’s one of the reasons there was enthusiasm in the voice of the 31-year-old captain when he met with reporters Wednesday after wrapping up the team’s final full-fledged practice before Thursday night’s opener against the Washington Capitals at PPG Paints Arena.

“It’s always exciting, Game 1,” Crosby said. “A lot of anticipation. Camp feels like it takes forever. It’s good to know we’re going to be getting back at it.”

Last year at this time, the Penguins were two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. That’s an amazing accomplishment, one they were the first team in the salary-cap era to achieve, but it came at a price.

They were worn down after consecutive short summers. They knew full well the games that mattered were still seven months away. It requires a tremendous amount of energy to win consistently in the NHL, especially on defense, and the Penguins didn’t always have it in reserve.

There was the 10-1 blowout in Chicago in the second game of the season. Humbling 7-1 losses to Tampa Bay and Winnipeg soon followed.

By New Year’s Day, they were 19-18-3, giving up about three goals per game, barely hanging around on the fringes of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

By any definition, it was a poor start. Human nature had grabbed their ankles and was threatening to pull them into the abyss.

“For whatever reason, whether it’s a shorter summer or mentally not having that desperation level, I think, as a group, we were kind of lacking that until after Christmas,” Crosby said.

“It’s human nature a little bit. Maybe fatigue. Who knows? There’s a lot of different things.”

The Penguins got the ship righted and were a legitimate championship contender by the trade deadline, but in the final analysis, they took the long, hard road to get there.

A smoother, steadier start would go a long way toward making this season a more successful one.

“We’ve got to approach every game the same way, whether that’s the start of the season or January, February, whatever it may be,” goalie Matt Murray said. “I think we have to start every single game with the same urgency.”

That’s where human nature comes back in. If the Penguins lacked urgency in the early part of last season, it came roaring back when they watched the Capitals perform Stanley Cup keg stands all summer long.

“I think you’ve probably got more of a chip on your shoulder coming in having lost and having that fresh in your mind,” Crosby said. “The fact that they went all the way to win, too, and knowing how close you were, those are all great motivating factors.”

There are other reasons for Crosby to feel optimistic heading into this season, of course -- reasons that will have more of a quantifiable effect on the outcome of games than human nature will.

The Penguins are deeper up front, especially at center, than they have been in years.

The addition of Jack Johnson and Juuso Riikola has given the defense a shot in the arm. A longer summer has players such as Kris Letang and Murray optimistic about putting subpar seasons behind them.

They’re a talented group, one capable of challenging for a third Stanley Cup in four years if a few breaks go their way.

Human nature’s contribution will be making sure they don’t have to dig themselves out of a self-excavated hole months before they get there.

“We want to send a message that we’re still there, and we still want to win more Stanley Cups,” Letang said. “Like Sid said, we have to come in there with a chip on our shoulder and try to regain what we lost.”

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