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Associated Press
Jan 23, 2007, 3:40 AM EST

PITTSBURGH (AP) -Mark Recchi hasn't seen a Pittsburgh Penguins team like this since Mario Lemieux's comeback season six years ago.

It's a team that may be ready not only to make the playoffs, but to accomplish something in them, a team that can count on hockey's best scorer to make big plays and score vital goals, even if that player now is Sidney Crosby rather than Lemieux.

"We're not that far away," Recchi said of a young Penguins team involved in its first playoff race since 2001. "A lot of the pieces are there."

The Penguins, off until Friday as they enjoy a five-day All-Star break, have a 21-17-8 record and 50 points with 36 games to play. Accustomed to being well out of playoff contention by now, they're tied for the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

"Our goal and focus is to make the playoffs this year and build off that," Crosby said.

These Penguins aren't a threat to overtake Nashville (71 points) for the overall points lead any time soon. But the Penguins need only one more victory and eight more points to match what they achieved while going 22-46-14 last season, their worst record in 22 years.

The Penguins haven't finished out of last place in the Atlantic Division or won more than 28 games since Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr last played together in 2000-01, when they lost to New Jersey in the Eastern Conference final.

Adding new scorers Evgeni Malkin (52 points in 42 games at age 20) and Jordan Staal (15 goals in 45 games at age 18) to a lineup already led by Crosby has given the Penguins scoring depth beyond their first line. And, except for Crosby, former No. 1 draft pick Marc-Andre Fleury might be their most valuable player with a 20-12-6 record in goal and a greater on-ice awareness of what it takes to make important saves at pivotal moments.

All this youth has proven inspirational to the 38-year-old Recchi, who has 42 points in 46 games following a three-goal game Saturday against Toronto.

To Recchi, the Penguins lack the depth and experience of last season's Stanley Cup champions, the Carolina Hurricanes. Recchi was traded by Pittsburgh to the Hurricanes late last season and had 16 points in 25 playoff games for them.

"When you have Doug Weight as your third-line center and Ray Whitney as your third-line winger, you're a pretty good hockey club," Recchi said.

Still, Recchi doesn't think the Penguins need much more to compete with current top-record clubs such as Nashville, Detroit, Anaheim and Buffalo. Recchi and his teammates already are eager to see what general manager Ray Shero might add before the Feb. 27 trading deadline.


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I really hope the Pens make the playoffs. Even more than my beloved Leafs. I think it would be great for the NHL to get Sid and Malkie in the chase for the cup. From a promotions stand point, it would be great to advertise the league's best player in the league best tourney.
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