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Summer's over; Champion Penguins warily eye "Three-peat"

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

By WILL GRAVES

AP Sports Writer

CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. (AP) A month. That's it. That's all the down time Sidney Crosby afforded himself following one of the more dominant runs in hockey history.

At the end of an equal parts thrilling and draining two-year stretch that included over 200 games, a World Cup of hockey gold medal for Team Canada and a pair of Stanley Cup parades through downtown Pittsburgh, the Penguins captain managed to squeeze - or maybe tolerate is the better word - four weeks off during another abbreviated summer.

More than enough, Crosby insists, for the fire that burns within to start anew.

"It's a pretty short offseason, but short offseasons are good," Crosby said Friday as the Penguins began training camp. "Having that type of hockey fresh in your mind isn't necessarily a bad thing either."

Not when the prospect of history beckons. Pittsburgh became the first team in nearly two decades to repeat as champions when they ended Nashville's stunning run to the Cup final last spring. No club since the New York Islanders of the early 1980s has captured three consecutive Cups.

Not Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and the 1980s Edmonton Oilers. Not Crosby's boss, Penguins owner Mario Lemieux, who came up short in Pittsburgh's bid for a three-peat in 1993. Not Crosby's idol, Hall of Fame center Steve Yzerman, who couldn't get out of the conference semifinals with Detroit in 1999.

Crosby, who turned 30 in August, welcomes the opportunity but also didn't spend July and August pondering what another raucous Cup victory would mean to his own burgeoning legacy.

"You've got a window to be a professional hockey player and you just want to enjoy that and give my absolute best in that time frame," Crosby said. "And I think just being able to be on a winning team last year, coming back and see a lot of the same faces and have that fresh in your mind and want that again, that's enough motivation."

Not every face is the same. While Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford deftly kept the group that won it all in 2016 largely intact, no amount of creative accounting could help the Penguins avoid the reality that success comes at a substantial cost in the salary-cap era.

Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was sent to expansion Las Vegas following the rise of Matt Murray. Trevor Daley bolted for a big contract in Detroit. Nick Bonino did the same in Nashville. Chris Kunitz took a one-year deal in Tampa. Matt Cullen put off retirement one more year so he could have a last hurrah in his native Minnesota.

"You really miss those guys but that being said you can't wallow in self-pity when they're not here or long after them like a heartbroken lover if you will," Pittsburgh defenseman Ian Cole said. "Those guys will certainly be missed. If you said anything else you'd be lying. But it's something that's the name of the game and that's the business that we're in."

One the Penguins stress will not prevent them from setting their sights on another extended playoff stay, preferably the kind that ends with champagne showers in the dressing room in mid-June. There are holes that need to be addressed, namely at third-line center after Bonino split for the Predators. Yet Rutherford is in no hurry to fill them. Last he checked, the Penguins still have Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Two of the best players in the world on the roster has a way of buying peace of mind.

"That's why I don't have to be pressured to have one for opening night when you have those two centers," Rutherford said. "They carry the load."

Oh, and they have help. Jake Guentzel was a sensation during his rookie season, scoring an NHL-high 13 goals during the playoffs and his versatility could make him a candidate at center in a pinch. Defenseman Kris Letang is back after recovering from neck surgery in April that rendered him an impeccably dressed spectator.

Letang considers himself "lucky to be on the ice" and called his first workout with his teammates in months "a big step."

But just one. If the Penguins have learned anything over the last two years, it's the importance of not getting comfortable or looking too far ahead. They enter training camp as the oddsmakers favorite to do it again. The playoffs, however, are a long way off. So they'll settle into camp, try to see who fits where and not buy into their own hype.

"I think the history aspect of it is probably the least forefront of your mind," Cole said. "Just the ability to be successful as a team in this given year, to want to win games ... to be competitive (is the goal.). The historical chips will fall where they may and that's the attitude we have going into the season."

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Updated September 15, 2017

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