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Rebound seasons by Fleury and Malkin are the key to another Stanley Cup run by the Penguins.

Players fortunate enough to have won the Stanley Cup will tell you only one task in hockey is more difficult – successfully defending it. In the 17 seasons since the Penguins pulled it off in the spring of 1992, only Detroit has managed the feat.

That’s why many suspect the implementation of the salary cap five years ago officially sounded the death knell for the already-wounded concept of the National Hockey League dynasty. The provisions of the current collective bargaining agreement essentially deny teams the ability to buy their way out of mistakes while also springing players into unrestricted free agency earlier than ever before.

In this context, it was hardly shocking to see the Penguins fail in their bid for a second straight Cup last spring. But it felt disastrous in the Pittsburgh dressing room when the Penguins ripped off their skates after a Game 7 home loss to Montreal in the conference semifinals, in part because their 2009 Cup, the youth of their stars and the continued shrewd management of Ray Shero have combined to produce some very heady annual expectations.

On the opening day of training camp last month, there was a hint of pensiveness in goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury’s eyes when the subject came up. “The only thing that will satisfy us is to get there again and win,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”

Indeed, if it’s a heavy burden carrying Cup potential around every single season, then the Penguins had better stay in the expansive weight room inside their dazzling new home at Consol Energy Center.

Many in his position would downplay such talk, but not coach Dan Bylsma. “Expectations I think from outside and from inside won’t change,” he says. “It’s a pretty clear goal: be an elite team, a team that’s going to contend and push to win the Stanley Cup.”

This season, that push will have two very visible components.

Shero threw down the defensive improvement gauntlet on July 1 by signing two of the best available blueliners in Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek, and Bylsma moved to address a lack of scoring punch from the wing by confirming that center Evgeni Malkin was likely to spend most of the season there, perhaps alongside Jordan Staal, who was expected to miss the first few weeks of the regular season recovering from a post-surgical infection of the foot tendon cut last spring.

Martin is a smooth-skating, puck-moving defenseman who frustrates forecheckers by keeping their trips into the offensive zone as brief as possible. New teammate Pascal Dupuis would know, having chased him often the last six seasons when Martin played in New Jersey. “If you want to play keep away with the puck,” Dupuis says, “he’ll keep it for an hour.”

Michalek’s defensive playbook is a little more gritty and involves putting his body between the puck and his goaltender as often as possible; over the last three seasons, only Colorado’s Brett Clark and the Devils’ Anton Volchenkov have averaged more blocked shots per game.

But any change to the Penguins’ defensive fortunes involves more than replacing Sergei Gonchar, Mark Eaton, Jay McKee and Jordan Leopold. It also means finding a fresh appreciation of a team-wide attention to detail without the puck, something Montreal had—albeit an over-the-top version—last spring.

“It’s buying into whatever your focus is,” says defenseman Brooks Orpik. “Montreal was a prime example of that last year. I think on paper they wouldn’t really scare a lot of people, but it was a team, a collection of guys… they have superstars, but guys like (Brian) Gionta and (Scott) Gomez weren’t too concerned with points. They bought into that defense-first system. A lot of things went into it, good goaltending and some good bounces, but they deserved what they got last year.”

The Penguins were only the 20th-best defensive team in the league last season, allowing an average of 2.87 goals per game – worst among the NHL’s 16 playoff teams. But given that Pittsburgh allowed only 28.7 shots per game—the league’s sixth-best mark—there will be added scrutiny for Fleury, who seemed to take a small step backwards after his great 2009 Cup run.

The 25-year-old Fleury has already demonstrated he has all the physical and mental tools to excel, but he seems still to be working on consistency in his challenging position. Asked about what he can do to get Pittsburgh back to the Cup, he wasn’t ready to think about next June. “My focus has to be… not too far ahead,” he said.

Fleury was confident, in control and precise in his first two preseason appearances, after the second of which Bylsma said, “The 60 minutes of concentration and work level is something that is really important.”

The support the popular Fleury gets from his teammates is an important ingredient for the Penguins, and Michalek didn’t hesitate when asked about his new teammate.

“I don’t know how it was here in the past, but I know Marc-Andre is a really good goalie and we just need to make sure he sees the puck. When he sees the puck, he’s going to stop most of the shots,” Michalek said. “We have really big confidence in him, and there is no doubt in our heads that he is going to be back there always for us.”

If the Penguins need a bounce-back season from Fleury, they also need one from the 24-year-old Malkin, who already has an Art Ross and Conn Smythe in his personal trophy case after just four NHL seasons. Malkin missed 15 games with injuries and was saddled with unproductive linemates last season, but he also produced a career-low 28 goals and took more minor penalties than every player in the league save Steve Downie and Scott Hartnell.

Malkin says the move to right wing “won’t change my game,” although his thoughts on the move were on the agenda when Bylsma visited Malkin in his native Russia this summer. Bylsma left impressed once more with Malkin’s resolve.

“It almost always comes back to what he wants in his career and where he thinks he can go, and he wants to win more Stanley Cups here in Pittsburgh,” Bylsma recalled. “He’s said it to me a handful of times: ‘I want to win more Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh, not just one, coach.’ That’s what his mindset is. He’s got—we all do—some improving to do.

“When I look at where most players are at the age of 23, 24, 25, a lot of guys have three or four of their best seasons ahead of them at that point in time. We think, ‘Man, how good can this guy be and what can he do? What’s the top end?’ It’s tough to measure. When he’s already got a scoring title, when he’s already got 113 points in a season, it’s tough to think there’s more to do after that. We definitely think and he knows he can keep improving his game.”

Just like the late-summer signing of Arron Asham will help the Penguins’ grit, the signing of forward Mike Comrie promises to help Malkin deliver more goals from the wing – perhaps in the long run as Sidney Crosby’s linemate. Crosby used the longer summer to set more goals that spell trouble for the rest of the league, and of all the reasons for people to expect long playoff runs from the Penguins, the presence of their 23-year-old captain continues to top the list.

Everything Crosby does seems calculated to push him one step closer to the Cup, and that sense of purpose now pervades the entire team. For a guy like Comrie, who’s suffered more than his share of losing in recent seasons in Phoenix, Long Island and Edmonton, it’s a welcome change.

“As a player,” he says, “you can’t ask for a better mindset than that.”

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