Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma, left, skates behind Penguins’ Sidney Crosby during NHL hockey practice in Canonsburg, Pa., Sunday Jan. 13, 2013. It was the first official team practice of the 2013 NHL season for the Penguins. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
by Will Graves
AP Sports Writer
CANONSBURG, Pa. (AP)—Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma was in the midst of a little speech during his first day at his normal job in eight months when his players stopped suddenly and raised their sticks in the air.
The gesture served as a salute to the hundreds of fans who packed a suburban Pittsburgh hockey complex to watch the Penguins in their first official practice since the end of the NHL lockout.
The response—a chant of “Let’s Go Penguins” by the folks who crammed elbow to elbow on concrete bleachers—erased any lingering concern about animosity over the four-month work stoppage that cut the league’s season nearly in half.
Finally, it’s back to hockey.
“It’s pretty special to have a packed building,” Bylsma said.
The crowded ice and Bylsma’s whistle gave things a sense of order following weeks of anxiety that the season might be lost completely.
Instead, it’s game on for a team considered a Stanley Cup favorite now that Crosby appears to be fully recovered from concussion-like symptoms that dogged him for the better part of two seasons.
Maybe it’s because the Penguins have few holes to fill. The team invited just 26 players to camp, meaning there will only be a handful of cuts before the season starts on Saturday in Philadelphia.
The biggest question Bylsma will need to answer over the next six days is who to put on a line with reigning MVP Evgeni Malkin and winger James Neal.
Bylsma expects fatigue not to be an issue for Malkin or the other players who took part-time jobs internationally or spent time in the minors while the seemingly endless labor negotiations dragged out.
It certainly wasn’t an issue on Sunday, when the 90-minute session was considered “torrid” by some of the Penguins coaches.
“It was fast, it was quick and Sidney Crosby was revved up and going, flying up the ice at times,” Bylsma said. “I think once we got into some battle areas, you saw some bumping and grinding, some physical play down low that most guys aren’t prepared for, at least on a long-term basis.”
There were end-to-end rushes, battles in the corner and a sense of optimism that the ugly finish to the 2011-12 season is now firmly behind them.
The Penguins entered the postseason riding high only to get beat by the Flyers in six games in the opening round of the playoffs.
The series looked more like a series of defense-optional All-Star games. The teams combined for 56 goals in six games, an anomaly that left a bitter taste in Pittsburgh.
Forward Pascal Dupuis says he spent most of the lockout fending off questions about what happened while back in his native Canada.
“It was all anybody wanted to talk about,” he said.
Pittsburgh would prefer to change the conversation over the next three-plus months in which they’ll cram 48 games into 99 days.