RALEIGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins took to the ice Tuesday at the RBC Center as if they owned the place, smiling and laughing it up before practice.
For two nights in May, they did own it. The Penguins beat the Carolina Hurricanes 6-2 and then 4-1 to finish off a playoff sweep in the Eastern Conference finals, ending the Canes' hopes of a Stanley Cup with the force of a slap in the face.
The Penguins went on to win the Cup, outlasting the Detroit Red Wings in seven games. They have the banner, the rings, the tag of "Stanley Cup champions."
Tonight, they're back to play the Hurricanes again at the RBC Center -- Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Bill Guerin, Sergei Gonchar and Brooks Orpik. Generally, it's the same talented, explosive cast that polished off the Canes in four games.
But the Hurricanes insist tonight's game is more about the here and now, about this season, not about the doings in May, however disappointing.
"They were a better team. What are you going to do?" Canes defenseman Joe Corvo said Tuesday. "They just outplayed us. They were a scoring machine. It's not like we were barely losing games. They put up a lot of goals and were just hard to stop.
"It's just a matter of clearing net and not even thinking about that. They've got a good team again, and we've got to be ready to play against them."
Not that Corvo minds the challenge of taking on a Crosby, a Malkin, the big cogs in that "machine."
"It's fun," he said. "You've got to play real close to them and not give them a lot of room. It definitely brings out the best in every player."
The Hurricanes (2-3) won't have all of their best players tonight. Forward Erik Cole is out with a leg fracture, and defenseman Joni Pitkanen has missed four of the first five games as he continues to recover from arthroscopic knee surgery.
Canes coach Paul Maurice was hoping to have Pitkanen back in the lineup this week, but the soreness in the knee persists, and his return is indefinite.
"It's taken longer than he would like or we would like," Maurice said.
That means defenseman Jay Harrison will get another start. So will forward Tim Conboy.
"It's an opportunity for the guys who may not be put in positions of responsibility to really step up and show what they've got against a team that you can really gauge yourself against," Canes defenseman Aaron Ward said.
Center Eric Staal also was missing Tuesday at practice. Maurice said Staal was "a little tight" physically Monday but that he should play.
Count on that. Staal hasn't missed a game since late in his rookie season, and he's not about to let younger brother Jordan Staal of the Penguins have the ice to himself.
The Staals have much to celebrate. Both have Stanley Cup rings, and Eric made Jordan an uncle for the first time with the recent birth of his son, Parker.
But tonight they go at it again, brother against brother. And the Hurricanes again face the same task -- how to slow Crosby, Malkin, Jordan Staal and the rest of the Pens' deep group of forwards, how to deal with the Pens' speed down the ice and play-making ability, how to crack Fleury.
"We're aware of how good they are. We had a first-hand seat for that," Maurice said. "But if you can find a way to beat 'em, it'll make yourself feel pretty good and keep moving. Everybody says it's early in the season, but it's only early if you're moving in the right direction, and we hope we are."
The Penguins have been able to avoid the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover. They're 5-1, losing 3-0 to the Phoenix Coyotes in the third game of the season. Some hangover.
"It's not a hard transition when you have the main core of your team returning," the Canes' Ward said. "It's not like they have to get a few guys acclimated to who's in the locker room. They know who's there and they're very familiar with how they play and what their identity is."
Pens coach Dan Bylsma isn't taking it easy on his guys. The day after a 4-1 win over the Ottawa Senators, Bylsma put the Penguins through a lengthy practice Tuesday.
The Penguins, like the Canes, can improve in some areas -- too much time in the box, to name one. They're the two most penalized teams in the league.
"Just game by game this season is an indicator of where we're at," Corvo said. "Some of us are not getting off to the quickest starts, and we're taking a lot of penalties, and those things have got to change."
The goal tonight for the Hurricanes isn't payback for the playoffs or erasing bad May memories. The Canes are 10-5-1 against the Penguins in the regular season since the start of 2005-06 and hope to add to that success.
As forward Tuomo Ruutu put it, "Getting the two points is all that matters."
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