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BUSY BIRDS: PENGUINS FACING GRUELING STRETCH OF SCHEDULE

Monday, 01.16.2006 / 12:00 AM / Pittsburgh Penguins
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BUSY BIRDS: PENGUINS FACING GRUELING STRETCH OF SCHEDULE

If the Pittsburgh Penguins' lockerroom isn’t stocked with laundry detergent – they should buy some ASAP.

They might want to invest in another washer and dryer, too.

That’s because the Penguins’ laundry load will increase substantially over the next month or so.

Once again, the NHL will cease play for a little more than two weeks this year so its players may participate in the ice hockey tournament at the Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, from Feb. 15-26.

The long layoff will allow some players to represent their countries and others to rest. However, the break in action wreaked havoc on the NHL schedule.

As a result, the Penguins – and every other NHL squad – have to deal with a compacted schedule. The Penguins have felt its effects all season, but the stretch from Jan. 1 until Feb. 11 is an exceptionally busy one. The Penguins play a total of 22 games in 42 days.

“It’s not too bad. I prefer to play every other night the way it is,” Penguins defenseman Ric Jackman said. “If you get on a streak, it’s a good time; you could get a lot of games in when you’re hot. Fortunately, if you lose a game, you get a chance to get right back at it the next night.”

This stretch gives the Penguins a good chance to make up ground in the Eastern Conference standings.

“We just have to stay mentally prepared. We know what we have to do here in this month,” Jackman said. “We’re pretty far back, so we know we need to make up some ground, especially when we are playing teams in our division. This is going to be the tell-tale for season – how we play here before the big break.”

The Penguins (11-26-9) play a total of 15 games in 31 days in January. They just wrapped up a stretch of five games in seven days.

“It’s tough physically. We all knew this month was going to come,” Penguins defenseman Dick Tarnstrom said. “I think it’s a pretty good thing. We’ve been playing better and better. Hopefully, we can build on that and get something good going.”

With roughly one-third of the season left when NHL action resumes in March, these games are precious for teams hoping to make a postseason run.

“Every game for us is a playoff game to get in the hunt again,” Tarnstrom said. “I think we’ve shown a lot of character in the last few games, so we’re getting better."

It’s even busier for the Penguins in February as they play seven games in 11 days.

“Sometimes, it gets tough when you don’t have much rest,” Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. “But, it’s good to be able to play so much.”

Of the 22 games, only nine are at Mellon Arena. In addition, five of those contests at Mellon Arena come directly before or after a road game.

“Playing back-to-back games with travel is a little harder,” Jackman said. “We’ve all done it before, though. It’s our job as professionals. You just get your rest when you can and be ready to play.”

The busy schedule is something new for the Penguins’ wealth of rookies.

“This is the first time it’s happening to me. I played in Wilkes-Barre, but it was more like we were playing a lot of games on the weekend and getting a couple days off during the week,” Penguins rookie Michel Ouellet said. “It was not the same thing. Now, you have the traveling and you are playing almost every other night.

“I think it’s exciting to go in there and give your best every night you’re stepping on the ice,” he continued. “It’s better to play the games than to practice.”

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