As an Eastern Conference titan that just happens to have two of the best hockey players in the world on its roster, the Pittsburgh Penguins are used to being despised in enemy markets.
And after three hard-fought playoff series in the mid-to-late 2000s against the Ottawa Senators, Pens like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have been subjected time and again to Scotiabank Place hostility.
Yet at the Bell Sensplex, which was packed to the rafters Saturday due to a minor hockey tournament, players and parents took an hour out of their Saturday to cheer on the same team they’ll in all likelihood be booing when the Penguins face the Senators Sunday at 5 p.m.
Crosby, who scored twice and thus earned an extra helping of scorn from fans in Winnipeg during the Penguins’ 4-2 loss against the Jets Friday night, was obviously a fan favourite here Saturday.
“Yeah, I’ll take it,” Crosby said following a brisk, late-afternoon practice. “Any time you get cheers on the road, it’s a good thing, so I’ll take it. I won’t expect it (Sunday), but it was nice.”
The Penguins should be an ornery bunch come game time Sunday, however.
Prior to the Winnipeg loss, which featured a blown 2-0 first period lead, they dropped a sloppy 5-2 decision to the Toronto Maple Leafs at home. Failing to generate a single point against two squads widely expected to the miss the playoffs is an especially risky move in a shortened season.
“I don’t think you ever like (losing two in a row),” Crosby said. “You want to get back on the winning side as soon as possible in a shortened season. We know we made some big mistakes the last couple games that hurt us, but we also did some good things too, so we’ve just got to minimize our mistakes and keep doing what we’re doing offensively.”
The Penguins opened the season with convincing wins over the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers, so it’s not as though they’re panicking. Still, Crosby said it was important to get back to the aggressive style the team displayed early on.
“You look at the first two games, we had a lot of offensive zone pressure, we all saw the work ethic, everyone saw what we were capable of doing, so that’s what we’ve got to get back to.”
Crosby said he hadn’t seen Ottawa play much this season, but he was aware of the dangers posed by players like Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson. Karlsson, last year’s runaway defence scoring leader, has matched Crosby’s three goals and two assists through four games.
Karlsson, of course, earned the Norris Trophy as top defenceman last season thanks in large part to that offensive production. But would Penguins defenceman Kris Letang have picked up the hardware had he played the full 2011-2012 campaign?
Letang was the early-season Norris favourite before running into concussion problems, which limited him to just 51 games. He managed 42 points when he did hit the ice, however, and he brings a physical element to the table that Karlsson doesn’t.
There’s a good chance Sunday’s showdown could be featuring two of three nominees on next summer’s Norris ballot.
For his part, Letang doesn’t see many similarities in the way the two play.
“I think we’re different,” said Letang, who has one goal and three assists so far this season. “Maybe I’m more a guy that relies on my physical game and trying to win battles and he’s a guy that relies on his speed and skill, but there’s some similarities in the way we join the rush, but I think we’re different players.
“It’s always a challenge to play against a guy like that, especially after the year he had last year, I think it’s going to be a challenge for our team to keep him quiet all night long.”
If the Penguins are to turn things around, they’ll need a better effort out of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who was atrocious against the Leafs Wednesday. Fleury, who surrendered all five goals in that loss, is expected to get the nod against the Senators.
He was in a fine mood after the skate, however, cracking a joke at his own expense after being asked if Sidney Crosby’s mid-winter walk to the rink in Winnipeg the night before had anything to do with the captain’s two goals.
“I was just going to be walking now, the next few days,” he said. “I guess I should try it, see how it goes.”