Blues open season against three-peat-seeking Penguins

Vladimir Tarasenko and the Blues will get a stiff test right out of the chute, the two-time defending NHL champion Penguins.
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH — For a lot of hockey-playing youngsters, waking up the day of their season opener can be like Christmas morning.

At 30 — yes, 30 — and with back-to-back Stanley Cups under his belt, three total, Pittsburgh superstar Sidney Crosby still feels some of that.

“There’s a little bit more anticipation when you’re younger, but for me personally, I’m excited,” Crosby said Tuesday after the Penguins’ final practice before they kick off the 2017-18 season Wednesday night against the St. Louis Blues at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh.

“You practice so much, preseason games. I like to get to the games. So it’s more a mix of excitement and relief just to know that the season is finally starting and that these games are for real. They’re meaningful. I think I get more excited about that.”

Pittsburgh’s second short offseason in a row officially ends with a pregame ceremony to raise the franchise’s fifth title banner and show off the newly engraved Cup. Then the Penguins get to work on what coach Mike Sullivan boldly brought up on a stage at the end of the championship parade in June — a three-peat.

“First game’s already here,” Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz said. “The end of our championship summer is (here). We’re going to get back to work and try and get another one.”

No team has won more than two straight Cups since the New York Islanders reeled off four in a row in the early 1980s.

After returning its team almost entirely intact a year ago, the Penguins had a little more turnover this offseason.

The biggest change was the departure of long-time franchise goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, taken by Las Vegas in the expansion draft. The net now belongs to 23-year-old Matt Murray, who earned two Cup rings while technically a rookie.

Evgeni Malkin, the team’s other star center besides Crosby, predicted the Penguins will rely even more on speed and skill in trying to win the Cup again — something that would surely give Pittsburgh dynasty status.

“We have great experience,” Malkin said. “We understand it’s not easy, but we understand we have a great chance.”

The Blues, who were eliminated by eventual Cup runner-up Nashville in the second round last spring, also are keying on speed and skill, although they are hindered at the start of the season by injuries.

While Pittsburgh is expected to be without tenacious winger Patric Hornqvist because of offseason hand surgery, St. Louis is expected to be without Alexander Steen (hand), Jay Bouwmeester (ankle), Robby Fabbri (knee), Patrik Berglund (shoulder) and Zach Sanford (shoulder).

That doesn’t dull the Blues’ enthusiasm.

“Getting to our game is the first thing that we want to do,” St. Louis defenseman Colton Parayko told NHL.com, perhaps unwittingly parroting one of Sullivan’s mantras since he has been with Pittsburgh.

“I think we already know our identity, and it’s we want to play fast. We’ve got a team that’s tough to play against, but we’ve got skill as well, if that makes sense. It’s a gritty team, but it’s a team that’s willing to work hard and get the puck. At the same time, we’re also able to put the puck in the back of the net.

“That’s a great combination. If we’re able to move the puck fast, if we’re able to use our speed, make it hard on teams to kind of make it to our zone and make it hard for them to score, it’s going to be fun.”

The game pits Penguins rugged fourth-line winger Ryan Reaves and St. Louis third-line center Oskar Sundqvist, who were traded for each other, along with draft picks, shortly after Pittsburgh won the Cup.

Blues coach Mike Yeo declared his team ready after it practiced Tuesday before traveling to Pittsburgh.

“Training camp, it’s necessary and there’s a lot of work that needs to be put in,” Yeo said. “I think the guys did that, but you could tell (Tuesday) there was a different energy and different pace to practice and everyone’s excited to get going now.”